COLUMN: Time for a reality check on Canada’s exports

Industrial transitions do not happen overnight, Jock Finlayson writes

Canada is a relatively small economy that depends heavily on international trade to underpin its prosperity.

An examination of what Canada sells to other countries sheds light on the industry sectors in which we possess competitive strengths. It stands to reason that the industries that supply the bulk of our exports are also the ones in which Canada enjoys some degree of global comparative advantage.

Unfortunately, many of our politicians don’t appear to think this way. Rather than asking what the country is actually good at producing and exporting, they dream about a future economy with a different industrial structure – typically, a structure in which “green” and “high-tech” goods and services predominate.

There is no doubt that tomorrow’s economy will be greener and more technologically sophisticated than the one we have now. But industrial transitions don’t happen overnight – they unfold over multiple generations. Nor do politicians generally have a decisive role in determining the details of the evolving industrial structure.

A few things stand out from the chart.

The first is the crucial place of natural resources in the export mix. In 2017, natural resource products accounted for 55 per cent of Canada’s merchandise exports (for the four Western provinces combined, the share was higher, closer to 80 per cent).

Energy alone represented more than one-fifth of the country’s goods exports last year, with oil by far the largest contributor. By any measure, natural resources carry enormous weight in our economy and remain foundational to Canada’s exports.

A second striking feature of the chart is the outsized contribution of the automobile sector – both vehicle assembly and parts – to the Canadian export economy: about 17 per cent of merchandise export receipts in 2017, with most of this based on shipments to the United States.

This underscores the importance of preserving the integrated North American automobile manufacturing sector at a time when NAFTA is being re-negotiated at the behest of a protectionist-minded American administration.

READ MORE: Liberals won’t compromise on culture, dispute resolution in NAFTA talks, Trudeau says

A third point is the very modest role of what Export Development Canada classifies as “advanced technology products” within Canada’s overall export basket. All advanced technology products together provide less than four per cent of the country’s merchandise exports.

As for the “clean tech” products that garner so much attention from many politicians these days, they make up perhaps one per cent of Canada’s exports – i.e., a miniscule sliver, albeit one that is expected to grow in the coming years.

At a time when Canada is seeing investment dollars and production activity migrate to the U.S. and other jurisdictions across the entire array of natural resource industries as well as in many segments of manufacturing, our policy-makers should be working harder to bolster the competitive position of the industries that are paying the bills today, instead of ruminating about a hoped-for economic future whose shape is in any case largely beyond their control.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Fewer birds tallied in Nanaimo’s recent winter count

1,550 fewer fowl counted than previous year, but there were a few unusual sightings

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Snow-covered sidewalks are a hazard

City refuses to change its current operational practices, says letter writer

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Schools should not have been closed Thursday

Our children have missed a day of school because of poor decision-making, says letter writer

Nanaimo mom will celebrate 40th in style after $500,000 lotto win

Crystal Giesbrecht matches all four numbers on BC/49 Extra

Suspect pulls knife on staff at Nanaimo 7-Eleven

Nanaimo RCMP looking for suspect who allegedly took items then produced knife when staff approached

VIDEO: Soldiers trade rifles for snow shovels to help dig out St. John’s

A state of emergency is set to extend into a fifth day

Power lines cut as thieves strike Vancouver Island veterinary hospital

‘Thankfully there weren’t any animals or staff in the clinic when this happened’

Warm ‘blob’ could be behind mass starvation of North Pacific seabirds: study

Unprecedented death toll raises red flag for North American marine ecosystems

Nanaimo council issues permit for mixed-use building on Terminal Avenue

29-unit residential building and café restaurant planned at 930 Terminal Ave.

Nanaimo RCMP arrest man who allegedly pushed clerk to floor during armed robbery

Chase Peter Goodale scheduled to appear in court today, Jan. 20

ICBC to bring in ranking system for collision, glass repair shops

Change comes after the much-maligned auto insurer has faced criticism for sky-high premiums

‘It was just so fast’: B.C. teen recalls 150-metre fall down Oregon mountain

Surrey’s Gurbaz Singh broke his leg on Mount Hood on Dec. 30

Vancouver Island Pride weekend returns to Mount Washington Alpine Resort

Building on the success of last year’s family-friendly pride festival on Vancouver… Continue reading

Most Read