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Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz and Newfoundland Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Kevin O'Brien leave the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro Oct. 25, 2013. (Nadia Sussman)
Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz and Newfoundland Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Kevin O'Brien leave the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro Oct. 25, 2013. (Nadia Sussman)

Atlantic leaders buoyed by Brazil trip Add to ...

Eager to diversify from a trade dependency on the United States, a delegation of business and political leaders from Atlantic Canada have spent the week extolling the virtues and skills of their region to businesses in Brazil.

The offshore oil and gas and marine technology sectors were the big focus, but everything from PEI cow embryos to helicopter engines – and, of course, lobster – was showcased as well.

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“From Newfoundland and Labrador’s perspective we have similar economies to Brazil. We’re heavily in the oil and gas industry, heavily into energy files such as hydroelectric generation … and mining,” said Kevin O’Brien, the province’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills. “And we have similar needs – this country is trying to diversify its economy and to build infrastructure around … and they’re trying to employ Brazilians through that process. So we’re very similar, in our objectives in the long term, for us as a province and for Brazil as a country.”

Just as the Canadian visit began on Oct. 21, Brazil held the first public auction of rights to exploit a vast deepwater find off the coast of Rio, more than two kilometres below the ocean surface. Mr. O’Brien noted that Newfoundland’s oil industry has wells deeper than that and is working to go much further.

Some Newfoundland companies are already working with Petrobras, the Brazilian national oil company that will spearhead the new offshore development, and a half-dozen more were part of the trade mission to talk about selling everything from undersea water-quality monitoring to marine lighting.

The new extraction in Brazil will be from the so-called “pre-salt” region, which lies beneath a huge crust of salt beneath the ocean floor. Offshore fields under exploration in Nova Scotia have a similar geological composition.

PEI Premier Robert Ghiz, who led the trade mission, said that after the economic contraction of 2008 he and his regional counterparts recognized that they had been overly reliant on the United States and needed to branch out. While all had made trips to China, India and other Asian destinations, Brazil had lately emerged on all of their radars as a prime target, he said. Brazil’s $2.2-trillion (U.S.) economy and its relative accessibility, in almost the same time zone, makes it an appealing partner, he said.

Staff from the Port of Saint John used the trip to pitch their harbour as an alternative to New York City’s congested port. “If you look at the maps, it’s pretty much the same distance from Brazil – it allows Brazilian companies to access the North American market through New Brunswick,” said Bruce Fitch, Minister of Economic Development for the province.

The big winners in the trade mission appear to be academic institutions. “On this trip we’ve established a major working relationship with a new nationwide oceans institution, endorsed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in Brasilia,” said Martha Crago, Dalhousie University’s vice-president for research. “That’s going to lead to more partnerships and the ability to work back and forth in a sector that is key to the economy of Nova Scotia.”

That new relationship will range from getting Canadian researchers access to the money Brazil is pouring into R&D, to a Canadian firm that will sell tracking equipment for marine animals to Brazil, she said.

Brazil has a “science without borders” program to try to bridge the country’s enormous skills gap, through which it will pay to send 100,000 students abroad for higher education in science and technology. Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said his province – with 10 universities, the highest number per capita in Canada – is poised to be a beneficiary.

Steven Stewart, director of strategic sales of PEI’s Vector Aerospace, spoke to the 86 other delegates on the trip about the huge potential his firm sees in Brazil. Vector will open a 2,700-square-metre aircraft-servicing facility in Jacarei next year.

“We thought it was time we make the investment and come in with both feet in the pool – to succeed in Brazil you have to be in Brazil,” he said. The business environment here is not without challenges, he added, including many layers of bureaucracy. “But if you have perseverance and patience, the profits will follow.”

This was the first delegation of Canadian officials to visit Brazil since allegations that Communications Security Establishment Canada spied on Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy emerged, which were revealed in a document by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Mr. Dexter said that they “don’t underestimate the sensitivity of the issue,” but the topic had not come up during their five days here.

“The ambassador briefed us when we got in … and then we were welcomed with open arms here in Brazil,” Mr. Ghiz said. “It’s a federal government issue – we’re going to let the powers that be deal with it … In not one meeting has anyone raised it as an issue. So it’s business as usual.”

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