Canoes, Maple Syrup and Tilley Hats: The Tory Vision for Canada’s Trading Future?

‘Hewers of wood and drawers of water’ – a familiar and shorthand description for Canadians’ historical economic bias towards natural resources, and a phrase used pejoratively to describe a ‘brand’ that we  need to shed to compete in a global economy. While the Harper government has trumpeted Canada as an energy “superpower”, and sought new export markets for our energy and mineral resources, one would expect that the Tories, joining the vast majority of Canadian business, would agree that a more modern branding was needed to propel Canadian trade in the 21st century.

All the more surprising, therefore, to see the press releases emerging this week regarding the Government’s effort to sell the benefits of the soon-to-be-concluded free trade deal with Europe. They announced that “Harper government ministers and members of Parliament will meet with the business owners [and] workers … who bring us some of Canada’s most renowned and iconic brands and products to highlight how a free trade agreement with the European Union will help boost Canadian exports.” The products (and the venues for these “iconic brands”) include a sugar maple farm in Quebec, a grain elevator in Saskatoon, the Tilley hat factory in Toronto, PEI potatoes and, an artisanal canoe workshop in northern Ontario.

“If we are to compete, our government should be offering us a vision – a “brand” if you like – that speaks to the real world of the 21st century, not one that is grounded in appeals to a rustic past.”   

It seemed a joke, a CBC comedy caricature of what ill-informed Europeans might think of Canadian business: wheat, maple syrup and canoes!  Surely, if the government is serious about selling the benefits of free trade with Europe to Canadians, it ought to focus on those sectors—like manufacturing, especially in transport and machinery—which already make up almost half of existing exports to Europe and actually create widespread employment. Though they are sadly absent here, millions of Europeans ride high speed Bombardier trains and sleek streetcars every day. Similarly, while agricultural products do constitute almost 20% of our exports to Europe, the sector employs very few Canadians (less than 5%); and even if exports rise, mechanization and consolidation will continue apace, meaning employment gains will be negligible.

More importantly, if we really want to compete with the Europeans, shouldn’t we be trumpeting the fact that the deal may remove obstacles to Canadian professionals (architects, engineers, etc.) working in Europe? Or the fact that our population is among the best educated in the world, and well placed (if protectionist barriers are removed) to compete in the high tech and service sectors in Europe?

Of course, the government is aware of this. It isn’t negotiating a free trade deal with Europe because it will increase canoe exports, or in the expectation that lower tariffs on maple syrup will be a huge boost to the Quebec economy. Their PR people are simply trying to make it “understandable” to Canadians, and thus their focus on simple and “iconic brands” – things they believe the public will identify with. But it’s worth asking, “iconic” to whom? I’m an avid canoeist, own a Tilley hat (indeed, I wear it canoeing!) and adore maple syrup, but none of these products springs to mind in my vision of Canada’s economic future as a trading nation. I suspect this is true for millions of Canadians, especially those – over 80% of our population – who live in urban areas.

With unemployment levels in Europe at historic highs, it is hardly a given that workers across the pond will welcome new free trade deals. The European Commission will need to work hard to sell the trade deal with Canada. Whatever approach they take, however, it is unlikely to involve photo ops in German lederhosen workshops, the Danish LEGO factory, or artisanal shortbread bakeries in Scotland. If we are to compete, our government should be offering us a vision – a “brand” if you like – that speaks to the real world of the 21st century, not one that is grounded in appeals to a rustic past.

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