Jim Prentice, the vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, as well as a former federal cabinet minister, made an effective case for the symbiotic relationship of the Canadian commodity and manufacturing sectors in a speech on Thursday to the Toronto Board of Trade. This was a welcome sequel to a tense exchange this week between the Premiers of Alberta and Ontario about the oil sands and the strength of the Canadian dollar (though Dalton McGuinty has expressed his regret for thinking “in real time”).
Alberta politicians have often spoken about the benefits to Ontario of the oil sands and the petroleum sector; Mr. Prentice – who now lives in both Toronto and Calgary – goes further, arguing with evident conviction that Alberta and Ontario need each other, that the benefits are mutual. He pointed out that the amount of planned energy infrastructure projects in Canada is huge – investments of $290-billion in the course of the next two decades – and not only in the West, but also in the Atlantic provinces and Central Canada.
In his view, the traditional Canadian manufacturing base in Ontario ought to be where most of the high-value components needed for these projects are constructed. The Western provinces do not have enough industrial capacity to keep up with their own rising demand – for example, for the piping for future pipelines such as the Northern Gateway project. And China is not yet capable of supplying such high-value products. But, as Mr. Prentice observes, the erosion of Canada’s established industrial base is accelerating.
As is often the case with calls for industrial strategies and energy strategies, Mr. Prentice’s speech did not abound with specific proposals. But he made it clear that he is advocating new wealth-producing, income-earning assets, not deficit-aggravating, grandiose projects or heavily subsidized sinkholes.
His explanation of a certain shortage of concrete policies is that he looks upon this speech as the beginning of a conversation – though several of the topics are perennial in Canadian public discourse. But he articulated the reality of the common interests of all the regions of Canada in a compelling way – which is a service to national economic unity.