‘What’s good for the West is good for the rest:’ CWF CEO


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Gary Mar, the former Alberta provincial cabinet minister, has the perfect mix of Alberta/Western Canadian exceptionalism and a love of the country for his current role as president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.

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Gary Mar, the former Alberta provincial cabinet minister, has the perfect mix of Alberta/Western Canadian exceptionalism and a love of the country for his current role as president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.

In Winnipeg this week for the think tank’s latest board meetings, Mar, 60, is the kind of guy that has personal, funny and loving stories about Gary Doer, the late Ralph Klein and even the late Queen Elizabeth.

He’s also not shy to state that the CWF is non-partisan but in another breath will rail about what he calls the asymmetrical federalism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (and also allowed that at one time the CWF spun off some work later adopted by the Reform Party of Canada).


Gary Mar, president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, says there’s plenty of things to unify the interests of all the Western provinces.

The CWF foundation turned 50 years old last year, making it one of the elder statesmen of Canadian think tanks.

Funded partly by governments, private donations and a founding endowment — including contributions from one of its four founders, the former Pierre Trudeau cabinet minister and Winnipeg International Airport namesake, James A. Richardson — the CWF works on the kind of public policy issues that its staff of 16 think is important.

“Our ethos is that we believe a strong Western Canada is good for a strong Canada,” Mar said. “Or, what’s good for the West is good for the rest.”

But as a general public policy organization — rather than say the Fraser Institute which focuses on business with its ready-made target for funding — it has to pick and choose what it works on.

For the last 10 years or so it has concentrated on three areas of public policy research: human capital, natural resources and trade or people, products and markets.

Being based in Calgary, and headed by someone like Mar — who in addition to his 14 years in cabinet spent a few years as the province’s official representative in Washington and then in Asia based out of Hong Kong and then ran the Petroleum Services Association of Canada — it might look a little Alberta-centric.

Mar said there is plenty of things that unify the interests of all four Western provinces, perhaps nothing more obvious than the transportation infrastructure.

“For instance more than half of the freight exported out of the Port of Vancouver comes from Western Canada” he said. “We need the infrastructure to make sure that rail cars are not whistling by empty to rush to Vancouver to empty out and fill up with imports to stock the shelves of Canadian Tire stores.”

“The infrastructure you could be building in the three Prairie provinces could fill those cars,” he said. “There is an ROI (return on investment) you could attach to that.”

Unlike others in Western Canada who “lament that we are landlocked in the Prairies” Mar is well aware of the significant potential of the Port of Churchill… even for oil exports. (He went on to talk about technology that exists that can turn bitumen into solid pucks that can be wrapped in material and injected with air that will float on the ocean and be easily scooped up if there ever was a spill.)

On the human capital side of things, the CWF recently did some research on the phenomenon of youth out-migration, an issue that is of concern to all three Prairie provinces.

Janet Lane, the director of the CWF’s Human Capital Centre, said that while employment opportunities is a significant driver of youth out-migration it is not the only one. After focus groups and surveys of youth she said they discovered that it also has to do with whether or not “will where I live project the vibe I want to project about myself.”

She said that places like Winnipeg do not do a good enough job of telling stories to the youth of the city about the attributes of the city that would be attractive to youth.

The CWF’s jurisdiction is obviously not the most populous region of the world, but it is strategically important.

“The world is going to need what we produce in this part of the country,” Mar said. “The events in Ukraine (including the Black Sea blockade that was preventing grain exports) make us realize that there are very few countries in the world that are food secure. Canada is one of the largest net exporters of food in the world. It is something that we do really, really well.”

In addition to “doing a great job” in clean tech and the hearty adoption of plant protein production in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Mar also believes that Western Canada still has great opportunities in the fossil fuel sector including building more LNG export depots and satisfying global demand for Canadian oil that “we should not squander.”


Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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