Some of Canada's top CEOs say Canadians should expect long-lasting economic gains from the G20 summit thanks to the rare opportunity to showcase the country and form high-level connections with such growing world powers as China and India.
It's a message that Canada's business leaders are eager to share in the face of a steady stream of negativity surrounding a summit that has so far been dominated by stories of protests, high costs and the forced cancellation of Roy Halladay's return to Rogers Centre.
But long after the fake lake has been drained and the $1-billion in summit expenses has been paid, business leaders say Canada will benefit from the weekend of disruption. As an example, about 250 of China's top business leaders joined President Hu Jintao for a state visit Thursday in Ottawa.
The opportunity for casual chats continues Friday night at Toronto's Royal York Hotel, where business leaders from G20 countries kick off their two-day "B20" event that will include time with G20 finance ministers.
"It's not an expense, it's an investment," said Manulife Financial Corp. CEO Don Guloien, adding that critics are losing sight of the fact that much of the expense is flowing straight back into the Canadian economy.
Tom Kloet, CEO of TMX Group Inc. which owns and operates the Toronto Stock Exchange, said the G20 is a "great opportunity" for Canada to show how its economy weathered the recession relatively well.
"We believe the visibility helps the Canadian economy, as does the opportunity to help shape the discussions at the meeting," he said.
Realizing the growing importance of the G20, Prime Minister Stephen Harper successfully convinced the group to add an extra meeting this year on the heels of the G8 in Muskoka - even though the G20 had already planned its 2010 gathering for November in Seoul.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty travelled to China, but also India, South Korea and South America in the run-up to the summits, winning support among emerging economies to challenge the bank tax plans advocated by the traditional powers of Europe and the United States.
The fact that Mr. Hu brought so many senior business leaders with him is seen as a sign that the Prime Minister's efforts are bearing fruit for Canada.
Thursday's state lunch at Rideau Hall and dinner with business leaders "indicates a tremendous change in the way the Canada-China relationship has developed," said David T. Fung, chairman and chief executive of the ACDEG Group of Companies, which has international interests in forest products, chemicals, agrifoods, power generation, manufacturing and recycling. He's also vice-chairman of the Canada-China Business Council.
"The current visit [of Mr. Hu]as a result of the G20 will have a significant impact on the Canada-China business relationship, and especially on the investment side," he said. A spokesman for Canadian insurer Sun Life Financial Inc. said the opportunity to mix casually with Chinese officials on the sidelines of the G20 is invaluable.
"It sends a hugely positive message to stand shoulder to shoulder with our own government and Canadian peers to showcase what we are made of," said Michel Leduc. "By nature, we are humble, so events like these enable our global profile. Hard to price that."
During their stay, these world leaders will wake up thinking about Canada, adds John Manley, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and a former deputy prime minister.
"For the other 363 days of the year, there probably aren't too many where they wake up thinking about Canada," he said. "This happens to be a year when we have the opportunity to host when we've actually got a really good story to tell."
That story revolves around the fact that Canada was one of the few G20 nations to avoid the worst of the recession and is among the first to start unwinding monetary stimulus by raising interest rates.
It's a good-news story that economists say is sure to make its way into the flood of international reports from the media centre in the Direct Energy building, home to the small fake lake and Muskoka chairs.
Garth Whyte doesn't doubt that the G20 will produce some long-term gain. But as president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, he said Toronto restaurants inside the perimeter will likely lose $45-million over the full two weeks of related disruptions.
"It's always for the bigger picture," he said, noting that restaurants are told the same thing about the HST. "Well, the bigger picture gets pretty small when you're hit directly."