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b.c. dispatch

When she is on a national stage, Premier Christy Clark has been on a campaign to educate Canadians about the need to widen the trade corridors that connect us to Asia. She has delivered her message to business leaders in Toronto, to her fellow premiers, and to the Prime Minister.

Ed John, Grand Chief of the B.C. First Nations Summit, shares a similar vision. This week he announced the creation of the First Nations-China Desk, a trade office to help native communities gain access to Asian markets and to help Chinese investors navigate B.C. resource development.

It's a shame the two can't get together on this – but there were signs late this week, however tentative, that they might find some common ground.

Political leaders can open doors in Asia, but B.C.'s aboriginals also have a marketable brand in China.

Mr. John will be in China in October, just two weeks before Ms. Clark's planned tour, to help raise a totem pole presented to the indigenous Qiang people to commemorate the massive loss of life in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The gift sprang from one of Mr. John's previous trade missions, and he has met twice with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has taken an interest in the project.

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada is a joint partner in the aboriginal initiative. "The potential is driven by China's rapid economic development and its appetite for resources as well as its capacity for investment," said Yuen Pau Woo, president of the foundation. Mr. Woo noted that China's central government has a strong political interest in Canada's indigenous cultures, and native communities have strategic interests in the resources that China wants.

If there is an indigenous advantage, it is one that the provincial government has yet to seize.

As the U.S. recovery sputters, British Columbia is increasingly looking to China to sustain resource jobs and to reel in investment dollars. In 2007, B.C. exported 380 million board feet of lumber to China. This year, the volume will approach five billion board feet.

But the province's efforts in China, since 2003, rarely connect with aboriginal leaders, Mr. John noted. "They never invite us .… It would be great if we could co-ordinate."

While Ms. Clark has been largely consumed with domestic issues – the harmonized sales tax, and whether she should call a fall election – Asia remains on her to-do list. She promised to make the trip to China (to India, too) within the first six months of taking office, but that deadline has slipped a bit even as China's significance in the B.C. economy grows.

In May, China eclipsed the United States for the first time as B.C.'s most valuable consumer of lumber products. It's because forest companies – forced by the collapse of the U.S. market – have adapted.

Canfor Corp. retooled its Quesnel sawmill for metric lumber last summer to produce the right dimensions to meet Chinese specifications. "We are reinventing our industry," said Wayne Guthrie, the company's senior vice-president for marketing. Today, Canfor sends close to 30 per cent of its volume to China. "As we look forward, it looks like there is more room for growth," he said.

Then there is the Lax Kw'alaams band that gambled on its own marketing office in Beijing and expects to reach $40-million in sales of pulp logs to China this year.

While Canfor has been working with the government for eight years on this file, the band has largely done this on its own steam.

Perhaps the province is uncomfortable with the message that B.C.'s aboriginal leaders are delivering: that investors must have informed consent from native bands before proceeding with resource deals in British Columbia.

The chief political spokesman for B.C. native bands, Mr. John met with Ms. Clark in June and suggested they join forces on the October visit. The timeline was dictated by the Qiang people, who want to raise the pole when they celebrate their new year on Oct. 27.

Unfortunately, Ms. Clark's team won't be ready to leave by that date.

"I think the Premier's participation would have been extremely helpful – even if a government minister was able to be part of the ceremonies, that would be an important statement on behalf of the province," Mr. John said.

But Pat Bell, Ms. Clark's Jobs Minister and her lead on the China file, said the Premier needs to take the time to get her first major trade mission right.

"People maybe underestimate the complexity of organizing trade missions," he said. "We've seen lots of these trade missions go into these markets with little or no results … We have a strong history of demonstrating that when we go, we get results."

Mr. John acknowledged Mr. Bell's efforts to include native groups in marketing B.C. forestry abroad, and he is asking for the province to help staff the China desk. What is missing is government-wide co-ordinated effort, and on that front he sees a leadership vacuum.

There is always room for improvement, Mr. Bell said. When asked this week why the government and native communities are not co-ordinating efforts, the minister was initially defensive. "Mr. John may have forgotten who paid for the totem pole," he said. But a few minutes later, he called back to say Mr. John should soon be getting his first invitation to join Ms. Clark's tour.

"He will have a formal invitation," Mr. Bell promised.