Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitoba reality check

Group that arose from the ashes of the Jets in 1995 looks at how far we've come since then -- and where we're going

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Where have we been, where are we now? But most importantly, where are we going?

On Thursday, the Business Council of Manitoba gathers to celebrate its 15th anniversary with a day-long summit featuring some of Manitoba's best and brightest minds as well as notable special guests from outside the province.

Jim Carr, CEO of the business council, said there will be time at the conference to look back at Manitoba and how it has performed in almost every area of social, economic and demographic measurement. However, the purpose of the event is to focus energies and attention on the future.

"The focus is going to be squarely on where we think we're going," said Carr. "We want to want to recognize the progress we've made but also focus on our weaknesses and figure out how best to address those."

Former prime minister Paul Martin, former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Kevin Lynch, a former clerk of the Privy Council, will participate in a discussion about how Manitoba fits in the national and international landscapes. Three former premiers -- Gary Filmon, Gary Doer and Howard Pawley -- will reflect on the challenges they faced while leading the province. Other sessions will focus on wealth creation, taxation and government finances, energy and the environment, and overall quality of life.

Although perhaps not as well-known as some of the more shrill special-interest groups in the province, the Business Council is nonetheless a fascinating story in its own right. The council was born out of the wreckage of the failed attempt in 1995 by business leaders to retain the Winnipeg Jets and build a new arena. That campaign brought together the wealthiest and most powerful Manitobans. They were ultimately unable to reach a deal and the team left.

The BCM was, in large part, a response to that failed exercise, according to Sandy Riley, president and CEO of Richardson Financial Group Ltd. Business leaders realized they needed to pull together to improve the overall position of the province; working at odds with each other would only lead to ruin and divisiveness.

A decade-and-a-half later, Riley said, and the BCM is well situated to drive the discussion about how to make Manitoba all it can be.

"If you look back, I think we've gone forward, we're a substantially better place," said Riley.

One of the most interesting aspects of the BCM conference is the presentation of what is arguably the most detailed, qualitative statistical analysis of Manitoba's social and economic performance. The council undertook some of its own research, and also enlisted the help of Wilf Faulk, the chief statistician for the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics and one of Canada's most knowledgeable voices in the collection and interpretation of big data.

Faulk will deliver an intensive, 30-minute "data sermon" that will focus on major statistical markers to show how Manitoba has fared over the past 15 years against other provinces, and the national average.

Faulk noted Manitobans often suffer from a significant inferiority complex, fearing that in relation to other provinces, we don't do well in terms of quality of life or economic and social performance indicators. Those people may be surprised at what the data really show.

"In general, what I want people to see is just how much Manitoba has changed," Faulk said. "Economically, socially and demographically, there has been a lot of change. And in general, we've really fared very well against the rest of the country."

Using 33 economic and social indicators, Faulk said Manitoba has shown steady, if not spectacular, progress during the past 15 years. When you whittle that down to 10 principal indicators, Manitoba ranks in the top five among provinces in seven categories. "I don't think that a large percentage of Manitobans would accept that, but we're actually doing reasonably well."

 

Although there are many threads running through Manitoba's economic narrative during that period, the issue of biggest impact has been population growth driven by immigration. Manitoba began aggressively recruiting immigrants in the mid-1990s, and continued through the 2000s thanks to federal initiatives such as the Provincial Nominee Program. Faulk said increased immigration is the one factor that has contributed more than any other in driving improvements in overall economic performance.

However, there are areas of concern. Faulk said. Manitoba continues to see large numbers of its citizens suffering in low-income stress, and a generally high violent crime rate. The greatest challenge facing the province, Faulk added, is likely the high number of aboriginal youth and their inability to enter the job market.

Manitoba has more aboriginal people, and aboriginal youth, as a percentage of its total population, than any other province. Unfortunately, unemployment among aboriginal youth runs at greater than 30 per cent, he said.

Riley said that while there are things to celebrate at the BCM conference, there are certainly areas off concern. "We can see some storm clouds on the horizon that need to be addressed," he said. "We need to acknowledge those and find a way of addressing them."

Riley said he will outline a number of areas of critical concern. Chief among those is government finances, and how Manitoba can in the future survive the slow-growth economic malaise that still grips most of the world and still make itself more competitive in terms of taxation.

Riley said although Manitoba's economy has performed very well during the past 15 years, taxation here remains higher in many key areas than the provinces on either side. To lower taxes, the province will have to figure out how to maintain support to core services such as health, education and justice while finding significant savings in other areas, he added. The BCM conference hopes to generate ideas on how to be innovative and sustain that balancing act.

Riley said another big challenge will be honing a strategy to maximize the economic benefits of Manitoba Hydro. The Crown power utility has found its old plan -- to increase generating capacity to feed U.S. exports -- has been eroded by the arrival of extremely cheap natural gas. It's time to reassess Hydro's mandate and try to find a way of making it a major driver of economic activity, Riley added.

Riley said the BCM conference is not meant to be a "back-slapping exercise" or an opportunity to whine about the problems facing the province.

"If we can instigate an honest debate, free of a lot of the political orthodoxy that we see around now, this could be a really great opportunity to plan for the future."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A6

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