When I started research for my recent book on global trade, I knew that Canada was kind of like the Jamaican bobsledder of international trade and investment.
What I never expected to find was that one of Canada’s wealthiest provinces, literally dripping in natural abundance, home to one of its leading cities and blessed with a natural bridge to the rest of the world, would be the uncontested laggard. B.C. likes to make a lot of the fact that it exports more to Asia than any other Canadian province. But Canada’s California is so relaxed about trade it can barely be bothered to make a long-distance call. B.C. exports less as a percentage of its GDP than any other Canadian province, with the exceptions of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. What’s more amazing, the province renowned for its lush environment has sprouted precious few globally oriented companies. Just 230 kilometres south of the border, Seattle boasts global behemoths like Microsoft Corp. and Starbucks Corp., but B.C. multinationals are as rare as the Vancouver Island marmot. To be sure, there are a few gems such as Methanex Corp., the world’s leading methanol producer, and Extreme CCTV Inc., the globally ambitious manufacturer of infrared surveillance cameras. But find a B.C. bigshot and chances are it answers to foreign masters. Take, for example, Electronic Arts Inc., the American-owned video gamer; Marine Harvest Canada Inc., the Dutch-Norwegian fish-farm conglomerate; and Creo, the digital printing company acquired by Eastman Kodak Co. And then there’s the bedrock of B.C.’s economy. Surely the province’s towering jack pines have translated into a global forestry giant? Apparently not. Neither the province – nor Canada for that matter – is home to a single tier-one forestry firm. In contrast, tiny Finland claims three of the world’s top 10. The biggest, Stora Enso OYJ, is five times the size of Vancouver-based Canfor Corp., with operations spanning from Brazil to China. The closest B.C. ever came to a global champion was MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., the once-mighty forester that has long since been picked over by hedge funds and American rivals. When I ask why B.C., with its unobstructed view of the Pacific, is so blind to its own global potential, observers blame the province’s “sailboat mentality.” Life is good and most here are happy to have a job that lets them cut out early on Fridays to enjoy the outdoors. And who can blame them? After years of economic stagnation, B.C.’s economy is on fire, with unemployment at record lows, housing prices bursting through the roof and provincial coffers overflowing. But, then again, it’s easy to feel you’ve succeeded when you keep your expectations low. When measured against what the province could have accomplished, a cloudier picture emerges. Vancouver, without much in the way of head offices, is essentially a bedroom community. Its younger people – those not lucky enough to have secured public-sector jobs – are forced to seek international employment opportunities in more dynamic hubs such as Hong Kong and Seattle. The mass exodus of Hong Kong immigrants, including those essentially born and raised in the Lower Mainland, speaks to the failure to provide enough high-quality jobs. As for the rest of the province, many resource-dependent towns are reeling from the closure of uncompetitive mills and mismanaged timberlands. Others such as Kitimat, blindsided by the stealthy creep of globalization, are left haggling for handouts. The provincial government is scrambling to address the problem, resurrecting the various Pacific Gateway projects picked up and then left to moulder by former administrations. My fear is that the billions of dollars in new bridges, highways and ports will be a one-way ticket for foreigners into Canada, while B.C. companies continue to sit at home waiting for the phone to ring. In a globalized world, the best defence against cutthroat competition is to go on the offensive. B.C. companies need to get off their duffs and get out there. It’s no coincidence that Electronic Arts located one of its principal studios in Burnaby. The U.S. video-game publisher first alighted in B.C. with the purchase of a local start-up, Distinctive Software, in 1993. But what keeps it here – other than the abundance of cheap techies – is the fact that many of EA’s leading executives, including the president of worldwide studios, hail from B.C. Having B.C.-owned, B.C.-headquartered multinationals matters. It allows you to decide how your company will confront the challenges of offshoring, outsourcing and China, rather than having those decisions made for you. If you don’t believe me, ask the former employees at MacMillan Bloedel.