Get understanding

Once again, I am lucky enough to be exercising my writing responsibilities from my camp in Labrador. Lucky is the operative word because Labrador is so amazing. For the uninitiated, it’s… well… grand, magnificent, awe-inspiring. Most come here for the fishing but come back because it is just such a special place, and being able to experience it repeatedly makes me realize how important it is we get Canada right.

We bring many customers, business associates and friends here from around the world. They universally and immediately realize how right Canada is; I’m not sure we do. It is human nature to become too familiar with special things and places and in so doing take them for granted.

What we can, or should, be doing to show our appreciation is a legitimate question. The answer is all too obvious: it ranges from not throwing trash out the car window and respecting the environment to getting involved in important national and local debates. Our country has real challenges, like governance of and engagement with our native communities, through to demanding changes to our education and health-care systems to make them better and more cost efficient, to industrial policy.

Why is industrial policy so important? Because it keeps Canadians employed. We cannot claim to be a rich and prosperous nation if too many Canadians who want jobs, don’t have them.

This is not about rating the wisdom of oil sands development in Alberta (obviously that should not be in dispute, particularly as industry discovers and implements extraction and processing methods which are more environmentally friendly). Rather it is about ensuring we have an inclusive policy, one capable of providing jobs across the country and the talent spectrum. Policy makers have to be sensitive and responsive to rural issues, to our challenging demographics, to those who have spent careers in manufacturing jobs and find themselves, through no fault of their own or deficiency in their skill set, displaced by global competition. Such policy must also be designed to be an important component of an intelligent immigration initiative, one capable of attracting bright minds, entrepreneurial talent and those skill sets which might be in demand from time to time.

What worries me is the extent to which Canada’s policies in this regard are ad hoc, not coordinated between the federal government and the provinces, and too often focused on short-term objectives.

This is not to say we don’t have some excellent initiatives, we do. Federal support of the Canada Research Chairs and other attempts to stimulate research and development in the private sector are generally intelligently crafted. However, they have failed to stimulate the desired response. Tom Jenkins’ Committee on Innovation will no doubt be a harbinger of new policy and thinking in this area.

But we need more. It begins with a better understanding among Canadians and their political leaders for the importance of growth. Growth solves so many problems and lack of it creates many more. At the heart of growth are population and employment levels. Without increases in the work force, then GDP growth is solely a function of productivity improvements, an area in which Canada has never performed particularly well despite policy makers’ best efforts.

Halifax and St. John’s cannot continue to do well at the expense of rural communities. There is a natural limit to such population movements, and that’s not well understood. Neither is the urgency needed to initiate much more aggressive yet carefully crafted immigration policies. Too many, in and out of government, believe this is optional. It is not.

Other industrial development exercises need to be more broad-based. It’s great to have thrusts around something like clean-tech, or life sciences. But such priorities require very high and particular education skill sets and/or experience, and by their nature are in demand everywhere else. What initiatives are capable of helping that segment of the population too old to be re-educated or trained? Which are capable of having a rural component? A healthy construction industry is an obvious candidate as an activity which employs folks across the age and education spectrums. My idea for a “most environmentally-friendly” village (championed in the May issue of this magazine) was an attempt to stimulate thinking in this area. A second idea for a “most healthy” village will be expanded upon in the next edition.

Someone famous once said, “with all thy getting, get understanding.” This is my ambition, to help people and policy makers understand the levers and tools capable of being exercised in this area and to urge a much more meaningful engagement for their use.

Canada deserves no less.

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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