Pop culture is full of beloved characters and compelling heroes, but common among many of them is the lowly sidekick. Batman had Robin. Archie had Jughead. Frodo had Sam. The sidekick lives in the shadows -- never quite as popular, but you root from them anyway.
Economically, the United States has its sidekick: Canada. For reasons having to do with our history, our congenial attitudes and our self-effacing character, we've contentedly lived in America's economic and cultural shadow. To borrow from the old cartoon, America is Fred Flintstone and Canada is Barney Rubble. The affable next-door neighbour was always a tag-along to the brasher, louder Fred.
That is, possibly, until now. The global economy has been evolving in unusual ways since the downturn of 2008, and Canada has the chance to climb out of its silly sidekick role. We'll never be a larger economy than America, nor can we ever decouple from its influence. But if we work at it, we have the chance to snag a few starring roles of our own.
Consider three recent developments that give Barney Rubble -- oops, I mean Canada -- some leading-man potential on the global stage.
First, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has gradually become a very influential person in the world. Because of some extremely shrewd manoeuvres just prior to the 2008 collapse, Carney is widely regarded as a monetary-policy rock star. Last fall, he was appointed to head the G20 financial stability board. He's blunt, confrontational and speaks a language that everyone can understand.
Yet he's still fully Canadian, so no one mistakes him for American lite. That gives Canada some credibility and recognition in global financial circles. Wallflower Barney is finally turning heads at global financial dance parties -- but his dance card is still pretty empty.
Second, the favourable business tax environment in Canada has not gone unnoticed. The venerable Forbes Magazine list of best countries for business put Canada in the No. 1 spot in 2011, up from No. 4 the year previous, mostly because of low taxes and relatively little red tape.
Of course, not everyone is so pleased with lower corporate taxes. It's a sore spot with the Occupy movement, not to mention some opposition parties that would raise, rather than lower, corporate taxes.
But now it's up to corporate Canada to prove the naysayers wrong, hire more people and keep employees' wage increases commensurate with profits and executive pay. If you simply squirrel away the extra profits, you'll only paint larger targets on your corporate rear ends.
Third, the Canada-cum-Barney Rubble of 2012 is rich in what the world needs: natural resources and the engineering prowess to extract them. Hydrocarbon resources in the oilsands have been particularly conspicuous, not only for their abundance but also for the controversy around their extraction. Barney is getting some very negative vibes from various environmental lobbies, and Fred Flintstone has just body-slammed him with the denial of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Northern Gateway pipeline is Barney flipping Fred the bird. The world is both amazed and confused with the new Barney. But if the old saying is right, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Suddenly, Barney's got the chance to not only improve his environmental stewardship, but to turn negative attention into something extremely positive.
Financial street cred, a new-found business boogie and the opportunity to prove he really can be a sustainable energy provider -- Barney Rubble's finally got it going on. But he still has to convince himself he's up to the challenge of crawling out from behind Fred's much larger, yet fading, shadow.
For once, Canada has garnered some rare global attention. Everyone's watching. We're no longer plain old vanilla. Let's seize the opportunity in 2012 to promote the Canadian brand to the world and forge trade deals with friends other than America. It's up to us to show the world what we already know: There's so much more to Barney Rubble than being Fred's goofy neighbour.
Todd Hirsch is senior economist with ATB Financial and a business columnist with Troy Media.