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Former Conservative federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is shown during an interview in Ottawa on Nov. 19, 2012.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Jim Prentice, the vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and a former senior minister in the Harper government, offered some subtle yet pointed observations about Canada's ambiguous welcoming of foreign investment, in a speech on Tuesday at the forthrightly named Oil and Money Conference in London.

Mr. Prentice suggested – not quite in so many words – that the policy change in December, 2012, restricting foreign state-owned enterprises' acquisitions in the oil sands to "exceptional" cases, had succeeded all too well in causing Chinese SOEs' investment in the Canadian oil-and-gas sector to dry up; it "has now essentially stopped."

He emphasized the enormous initial investment that the oil sands require, in contrast to the steady returns once an oil-sands project is complete: "like an annuity for 30 to 50 years." The implication seemed to be that Canada should not be so picky about foreign investors and should be more understanding of "emerging market economies that are more collectivist than our own."

As a former member of the cabinet as recently as four years ago, Mr. Prentice refrained from disagreeing with any specific action of the government. Instead, he said that Canada should work harder at building relationships with China and other countries in East Asia, and should strike a more receptive tone.

Moreover, he praised John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ed Fast, the Minister of International Trade, for understanding these cultural aspects of economic diplomacy, but at least in the prepared text he did not mention Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The 2012 policy change on SOEs verged on arbitrariness and opacity, and the budget implementation bill that followed was sweeping in its definitions of SOEs. Mr. Prentice's speech may fairly be interpreted as advocacy of a more balanced, diplomatic approach.