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

Just Posted

Abbotsford murder victim identified as Jagvir Malhi

Police say killing linked to Lower Mainland gang conflict

$7.4 million in funding for seniors’ housing in Mission

Province announced today that it will provide funding for 74 new housing units for local seniors

UPDATE: Man, 19, dies in shooting on Ross Road in Abbotsford

Victim was airlifted to hospital Monday afternoon, but died shortly afterwards

BC Ferries passengers wait to leave Vancouver Island after Remembrance Day

Traffic aboard BC Ferries slows after Remembrance Day long weekend

PHOTOS: Remembrance Day ceremonies in Mission

The event began with a parade, followed by a ceremony at the Clarke Theatre and then at the Cenotaph

VIDEO: Amazon to split second HQ between New York, Virginia

Official decision expected later Tuesday to end competition between North American cities to win bid and its promise of 50,000 jobs

Kuhnhackl scores 2 odd goals as Isles dump Canucks 5-2

Vancouver drops second game in two nights

Fear of constitutional crisis escalates in U.S.; Canadians can relate

Some say President Donald Trump is leading the U.S. towards a crisis

B.C.-based pot producer Tilray reports revenue surge, net loss

Company remains excited about ‘robust’ cannabis industry

Canada stands pat on Saudi arms sales, even after hearing Khashoggi tape

Khashoggi’s death at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul further strained Riyadh’s already difficult relationship with Ottawa

Feds pledge money for young scientists, but funding for in-house research slips

Canada’s spending on science is up almost 10 per cent since the Liberals took office, but spending on in-house research is actually down

Stink at B.C. school prompts complaints of headaches, nausea

Smell at Abbotsford school comes from unauthorized composting operation

Disabled boy has ‘forgiven’ bullies who walked on him in stream, mom says

A Cape Breton teen who has cerebral palsy was told to lie in a stream as other kids walked over him

Letters shed light on state of mind of B.C. mom accused of daughter’s murder

Trial of South Surrey mother Lisa Batstone begins in BC Supreme Court

Most Read