Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a media availability during a cabinet retreat at the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, N.B. on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

In the midst of economic upheaval both at home and abroad, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was remarkably upbeat as he called upon global billionaires and leaders of worldwide corporations to invest in Canada, saying the country has more to offer than oil and natural gas.

Taking centre stage at the annual World Economic Forum, Mr. Trudeau derided the former Conservative government's focus on Canada as an energy superpower and rebranded Canada as a hub for technological innovation and skilled labour.

"My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness," Mr. Trudeau said in a speech to about 400 delegates.

"We have a diverse and creative population, outstanding education and health-care systems and advanced infrastructure. We have social stability, financial stability and a government willing to invest in the future."

Mr. Trudeau kept to his optimistic message when he moved from the podium to a question-and-answer session with CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

"The low oil prices are a challenge, but the Canadian economy is a lot more than just natural resources. We have extraordinary high-tech sectors, innovative manufacturers, a really strong biotech and mostly an educated diverse work force that is excited about participating in the global economy," he said when asked if he was worried about plunging oil prices.

Mr. Trudeau held a series of private meetings Wednesday with global financial players that included billionaire investor George Soros, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden and 30 Canadian CEOs.

Mr. Soros told the Prime Minister that he was not stressed about the Canadian economy, calling it a stable place to invest, but felt Mr. Trudeau was too optimistic about the global economy.

He also praised the progressive values of the new Liberal government.

"It's welcome back to the Canada that we know, and on a global scale," said Mr. Soros, 85, considered one of the world's most successful hedge-fund managers.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was present for the Prime Minister's speech, was critical of Mr. Trudeau for playing down the importance of Alberta and Saskatchewan's oil and gas sector to the Canadian economy.

"I might not have used the same language that the Prime Minister used," Mr. Nenshi told The Globe and Mail.

"I would say Canada is resources-plus."

The collapse in oil prices has seen the Canadian dollar plunge, forced a sell-off of energy stocks and led to widespread job losses, particularly in Western Canada.

"All of that said, we are still a resource economy. Our biggest export is still energy and I do not see a path where that does not continue to be the case," Mr. Nenshi said, urging Ottawa to get serious about building a pipeline to the coast.

Brian Tobin, a former Liberal cabinet minister and vice-chair of BMO Capital Markets, said business leaders were keen to meet the Prime Minister and appreciate his efforts to sell Canada's diversified economy.

"As big as we are in commodities and resources, we are bigger still in manufacturing, in technology and R&D and innovation … Canada is a good home for foreign direct investment and for global companies to base themselves," Mr. Tobin said.

The focus on this year's economic forum is the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution, which involves the increasing use of robots, driverless cars and the sweeping changes internet technology is bringing to businesses big and small.

Mr. Trudeau said Canada is an "engine of invention" that rivals Silicon Valley with excellent universities and a strong high-tech sector that can take advantage of the next technological revolution.

"If you are looking for a country that has the diversity, the resilience, the positivity and the confidence to not just manage this change but take advantage of it, there has never been a better time to look to Canada."

The Prime Minister was asked by Mr. Zakaria about the logic behind his plan to withdraw Canadian CF-18 fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition air war against the Islamic State.

That Liberal election promise has upset many of Canada's allies.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was not invited to a meeting in Paris on Wednesday of seven of the key members of the coalition that included Australia and the Netherlands, both of which have similar military contributions as Canada.

The Prime Minister said that he won't reverse the election promise but assured the audience Canada would still make a meaningful military contribution.

"The logic is that countries should look toward where their competitive advantages are," he said. "Over the past 10 years, Canada developed a tremendous level of expertise in training and intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan, for example. And we definitely have much to contribute in helping local militias and local troops be more effective in the fight."

Mr. Trudeau has proven to be a popular attraction at the event of the rich and powerful held in this Alpine ski resort. Among the Hollywood movie stars attending are Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey.

"[Mr. Trudeau] is very present here. People are aware he is here," said John Manley, a former Liberal finance minister and President and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. "I even had someone on the bus tell me he skied with him when he hadn't even arrived yet. So certainly that celebrity status we have seen in other venues has carried over here."

Mr. Trudeau is scheduled to sit down with General Motors CEO Mary Barra on Thursday. Discussions are likely to centre on the fate of the GM plant in Oshawa that employs 3,000 auto workers and thousands more at nearby suppliers that make seats, exterior components and other parts.

GM must decide whether to make new investments in the Oshawa assembly plant when the life cycle of the current vehicles built there comes to an end. Production of one Oshawa-made vehicle was transferred to Michigan late last year.

The global forum will devote a full panel Friday to a "New Chapter of Canada," where Mr. Trudeau will speak, along with ministers accompanying him including Finance Minister Bill Morneau, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Treasury Board President Scott Brison.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, is having a private breakfast for Mr. Trudeau and global executives, while Dominic Barton, managing partner of McKinsey & Co., will play host to a dinner.