Even though a long-term strike at Canada’s west coast port was averted, the cost has been high — $5.5 billion is a lot of damage for a strike that never really got going.
It isn’t hard to imagine the damage that would have been caused by a strike that dragged on for months. A narrow miss like this is an occasion for reflection and action, in part to learn lessons that may help avoid a repeat.
Yet, that isn’t happening. The strike is off and so is attention.
This is the same pattern we’ve seen with news that Canada’s global trade infrastructure rankings had plummeted over a decade from top 10 to 32nd. It happened again after the flooding that knocked out the Trans-Canada Highway in B.C., again after COVID supply chain disruptions and border blockades in Coutts, and yet again after news that the Port of Vancouver, Canada’s largest, was second to last in global rankings for container port efficiency.
Time and again, breathless bad news gives way to collective amnesia and complacency.
For a nation that relies on moving goods in and out of the country for two out of every three dollars it earns, this has almost become like driving drunk and waking up the next morning with no memory of the night before and getting back behind the wheel.
We need to take the health of our trade infrastructure seriously to keep earning the money that pays to keep our schools and hospitals operating.
Lack of attention by the federal government shows that Ottawa is not taking this seriously, and it should. While ministers are present on the trade infrastructure file, it’s only when forced to do so and then they take only enough action to let the crisis pass before moving attention back to federal priorities such as greening the prairie economy. What the feds have not figured out is that if goods cannot move from the prairies, there is no economy to green.
Fortunately, the importance of focusing serious attention on long-term solutions to fix Canada’s trade infrastructure has not been lost on the provinces.
Last month in Winnipeg at the annual summer meeting of the Council of the Federation (CoF), the premiers got serious about fixing Canada’s trade infrastructure problems. All 13 premiers, from B.C. to Newfoundland, called for the federal government to work with the provinces to develop Canada’s first national trade corridor and infrastructure plan — something supported by the private sector.
A national plan will not immediately solve every problem that faces Canada’s ability to move goods. It will however lay the foundation with a framework to finally address these issues in a strategic, intelligent and data-informed manner. This process is something most of Canada’s competitors, who have national trade infrastructure planning, have figured out. We have not.
For larger projects like building new economic corridors, a national (not federal, national) planning framework is the only way to engage in a productive discussion to understand if projects make sense and, if so, the best way to advance them. This is something the current haphazard collection of disparate processes and programs that is our substitute for a national planning process for trade infrastructure has failed to do, and will continue to fail.
At the Winnipeg CoF meeting, about half of the premiers, including B.C. Premier David Eby, Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith joined host Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson at a breakfast to discuss the need for a national plan, what it would entail and how it could be constructed. In addition, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have signed a memorandum of understanding to follow international best practice and commits them to co-operate on improving trade infrastructure. This isn’t work that generates ribbon-cutting ceremonies for elected officials; it’s the hard, unglamorous work that will lead to success.
After the string of alarming news on the trade infrastructure front, it seems the provinces have had enough. They want action.
Gary Mar is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. Carlo Dade is director of the Trade and Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation.