Manitoba takes the lead
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TWO-thirds of every dollar we earn as a nation is tied to moving goods in and out of the country.
For the Canadian public, the importance of supply chains went from an abstract business problem to something very real as consumers and families navigated store shelves during COVID. Applied to the nation, the inability to move goods is more than a nuisance. It compromises our ability to fund health care, education and other vital services.
Unlike the U.S., with its massive new infrastructure spending and focus by the Biden administration, the Canadian government has not placed the issue at the forefront of its priorities.
Instead, the mantle is being picked up by the provinces, with Manitoba playing a lead role. As chair of the Council of the Federation, Manitoba has announced that the repair of Canada’s trade corridor infrastructure will be on the premiers’ agenda for this summer’s meeting in Winnipeg.
And there is much to fix. Over the past decade, Canada’s ranking on global indices of competitiveness of trade infrastructure has fallen. In the World Economic Forum’s latest ranking, Canada plummeted from the top ten a decade ago to 32nd, just behind Azerbaijan. Similarly, the World Bank’s rankings show Canada has seen a steep drop in how our top trade partners feel about our trade and logistics system.
This decade-long decline is consistent with domestic surveys that highlight concerns of users in Canada and customers abroad that there are serious problems. That the decline occurred over a decade means the problem is more than one bad winter, one rail strike, one flood or regulatory delay. The problem is systemic and requires an immediate systemic response.
And that’s what makes last week’s speech by Premier Stefanson to national transportation leaders in Winnipeg at WESTAC’s annual spring member forum so important. The premier went beyond the usual call to spend more short-term money to solve a handful of current problems in an ad hoc, every-province for-itself manner. Instead, she put forward a new vision for strategic trade infrastructure investments to unlock a new generation of economic growth for communities in all parts of the country, building on their respective strengths and local economies.
Specifically, she proposed that Canada establish a permanent long-term national trade infrastructure plan, like Australia, the U.K. and other G20 countries have done. A study by the European Union to benchmark its trade infrastructure performance serendipitously found that Canada was the only country reviewed that did not undertake co-ordinated national planning.
To climb back into the top of international rankings, Canada will have to fix its trade infrastructure. That will require increased spending, however Canada currently ranks toward the bottom of spending on trade infrastructure as a percentage of GDP. Before the country starts spending more, it needs to know where and how to invest scarce resources in ways that provide lasting, long-term benefits in every province and territory.
Other countries develop national plans that stretch decades into the future. This allows for the collection of data and analysis that incorporates information such as growth at home and abroad, new trade agreements and new types of production like plant protein into investment decisions that work for today and tomorrow. In this light, we can have serious, informed conversation about long-term projects like the Port of Churchill, or the best options for mitigating climate change and severe weather events like flooding in Manitoba and B.C. and Alberta’s fires this spring.
This type of long-term thinking is required if we are to realize the tremendous potential for growth for Canada’s trade-based economy and world demand for our resources and products. And it needs the political courage to “take one for the country” and put aside short-term political haggling and the urge to simply line up ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Premier Stefanson has taken a crucial, public first step in laying the urgency of the challenge facing Canada.
Gary G. Mar is President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, Carlo Dade is Director of the Trade and Investment Centre and John Law is Senior Fellow.