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

How much does your city spend per person on snow removal?

Black Press Media compares 2018 ice and snow removal budgets of various Lower Mainland communities

B.C. BUDGET: Surplus $374 million after bailouts of BC Hydro, ICBC

Growth projected stronger in 2020, Finance Minister Carole James says

UPDATE: Chilliwack man arrested for Agassiz break and enters

Westin Ferguson, 19, faces charges relating to break and enters throughout Agassiz

Short closures on Agassiz-Rosedale Bridge during pier upgrades

The project comes before the major retrofit of the bridge, which has been in the works since 2017

Preliminary inquiry starts for Chilliwack woman charged in 2016 fatal hit-and-run

Linnea Labbee, 70, accused in Dec. 1, 2016 incident that killed 78-year-old Fourghozaman Firoozian

VIDEO: Wheelchairs teach Agassiz students acceptance through sport

Teacher Donna Gallamore brought wheelchairs to the Kent Elementary for learning and fun

NDP candidates push for stronger climate action as Singh supports LNG Canada

Singh has tried to project unity in the party while facing internal criticism for poor fundraising and low support in the polls

‘Riya was a dreamer’: Mother of slain 11-year-old Ontario girl heartbroken

Her father, Roopesh Rajkumar, 41, was arrested some 130 kilometres away

‘Bullet missed me by an inch’: Man recounts friend’s killing at Kamloops hotel

Penticton man witnessed Summerland resident Rex Gill’s murder in Kamloops

B.C. BUDGET: Income assistance raise still leaves many below poverty line

$50 per month increase included in funding for poverty and homelessness reduction

B.C. BUDGET: Indigenous communities promised billions from gambling

Extended family caregiver pay up 75 per cent to keep kids with relatives

B.C. BUDGET: New benefit increases family tax credits up to 96 per cent

BC Child Opportunity Benefit part of province’s efforts to reduce child poverty

B.C. BUDGET: Carbon tax boosts low-income credits, electric vehicle subsidies

Homeowners can get up to $14,000 for heating, insulation upgrades

B.C. man survives heart attack thanks to Facebook

A Princeton man suffered a heart attack while at an isolated property with no cell service

Most Read