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Canada 200: How to build a business superpower by 2067

After 150 years, Canada is poised for an economic breakout. The big question: What do we do next? From sea to sea, taxes to tech, ports to pot, income to education – 10 ideas to build a business superpower by 2067

Illustrations by Celia Krampien

Money for nothing

Introduce a nationwide universal basic income

Forget 50 years. Driverless car technology is on track to displace a significant number of Canada's roughly 300,000 truck drivers within the next five to 10 years.

That's according to Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, who published a book last year on an idea that many consider a potential solution to the coming disruption in the work force: Universal basic income.

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Arguments for a universal basic income typically focus on the social benefits, such as reducing crime and lowering health-care costs. But the concept also promises economic benefits, such as making labour markets more flexible and encouraging entrepreneurship.

The idea of giving every adult a standard annual allowance not tied to employment is hardly new, but it has gained traction within the past year, with government pilot projects in Ontario and Finland. The renewed interest is a response to anti-globalization movements in the United States and Europe. But it's also being driven by a growing consensus that technology is rapidly making previously dependable jobs – cashier, truck driver, investment adviser – obsolete.

One reason to take the idea of universal basic income seriously: Some of its most vocal proponents are business leaders in Silicon Valley at the forefront of technological disruption that is fast reshaping the economy.

Many of those tech leaders also recognize how crucial having a financial support system is to entrepreneurship. Startups often rely on friends and family to be their earliest investors, a source of funds not typically available to the poor or middle class.

"It's no secret that the people who are working in Silicon Valley are not the sons and daughters of janitors or firefighters," says Mr. Stern, who is based in Washington. "Not many people can afford to leave school and then go spend a year or two trying to create some new business or fulfill some dream they have."

Much of the program's mechanics remain up for debate. Mr. Stern says the income would have to be high enough to eliminate poverty, should be paid at least monthly and be politically difficult to reverse.

The money could come from variety of sources, from changes to existing social-welfare programs, to scrapping boutique tax credits. Most likely it would require new taxes – a GST increase, a tax on financial transactions or even a "wealth tax" on assets such as homes and investments.

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How to pay for it is not the biggest hurdle facing the prospect of universal basic income, Mr. Stern says. Rather, it's overcoming deeply held cultural notions that equate working with good character and government transfers with laziness and entitlement.

Experiments such as the one under way in Ontario will be the key to dispelling or reinforcing such sentiments. But given how many jobs are at potentially at stake, Canada many not have the luxury of waiting 50 years to find out.

-Tamsin McMahon is a U.S. correspondent for The Globe

Become school snobs

Create a cluster of elite universities

In today's winner-take-all economy, more and more rewards flow to the best and brightest – the A students of the global classroom. Yet Canada, as a nation, appears content with earning a solid B.

We can, and should, do better. If there's one low-risk, non-partisan way to power the next generation of business successes in this country, it consists of nothing more than a commitment to breeding truly top-flight universities.

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In an ideal world, these schools would be magnets for talent, incubators for innovation and forges of links between business and academia. Just as Stanford anchors Silicon Valley, and INSEAD powers much of European industry, top Canadian universities could encourage clusters of commercial excellence.

Right now, we rank surprisingly low on surveys of postsecondary excellence. The World University Rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education group places only three Canadian schools – the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia and McGill – among the top 100 in the world.

By comparison, Australia has six of the top 100 schools, the United Kingdom has 12 and the United States has 41. Some comparisons get downright embarrassing: The state of Pennsylvania, by itself, has more top-100 universities than all of Canada.

The blame lies in part with our fragmented educational system. Provinces, not the federal government or private groups, control education in Canada. The result is a hodgepodge of regional institutions that reflect provincial priorities and budgets.

For the most part, that translates into an emphasis on accessibility over quality. While Canada has fewer top-tier universities than you might expect, it scores very well in terms of the percentage of the population that has postsecondary qualifications. In effect, we've chosen to educate many people pretty well instead of reaching for true excellence for a select few.

But why not do both? One approach would be to put aside provincial wrangling and agree to allow Ottawa to fund five new super-universities – one in B.C., one in the Prairies, one in Ontario, one in Quebec, and one in Atlantic Canada – that would each set out to be No. 1 in the world in a designated area, such as fisheries science, petroleum engineering, robotics, fintech and industrial design. (That's my list; choose your own.) They would cater to small groups of superb students and set out to match the Oxfords and Harvards of the world in their specific fields.

Yes, it's an audacious, brash, utterly non-Canadian notion. But without such leading lights, it's hard to see how Canada can earn an A in tomorrow's knowledge economy.

-Ian McGugan

Use all the talent

Boost representation of women at the boardroom and executive leadership levels by any means necessary

Looking for a low-tech way for Canada to transform itself over the next 50 years? A national strategy to dramatically increase the proportion of women in senior executive roles would be a good place to start.

The benefits of greater gender parity in top ranks are incontestable, and have been documented extensively in many separate studies showing companies with the most diversity have stronger decision-making processes and better financial performance.

The question is not why to transform Canada's executive ranks, but how to get there.

Women have flooded into the work force for 50 years, yet still filled just 8 per cent of top C-suite executive roles at Canada's 100 largest companies. Further change may occur organically over time, but it will happen much more quickly with a catalyst to spur it.

Securities regulators adopted new rules in 2015 to require public companies to report on whether or not they have policies to encourage more gender diversity in top roles, and even that modest reporting requirement spurred progress.

By 2016, women accounted for 20 per cent of directors on boards of S&P/TSX composite index companies, up from just 10 per cent in 2011.

In the same vein, none of the companies that have become leaders in promoting women say it just happened organically without any particular effort. Quite the opposite.

They set goals, analyze where barriers exist and change practices to ensure the numbers grow.

"Setting goals is really important, just as businesses set goals in any other domain," says Sonya Kunkel, chief inclusion officer at Bank of Montreal. "I know it can be contentious, but more and more companies are publicly declaring that they have set goals. That's been quite a shift."

HSBC Bank Canada has 60-per-cent women on its executive committee, and did it without setting a formal target, CEO Sandra Stuart says. But it was no accident of fate.

Ms. Stuart has insisted on equal numbers of men and women on candidate lists for all levels of hiring and promotion, even trying to ensure a diverse interview slate at university campuses for entry-level jobs.

"The one thing we've learned is to be successful at the top of the house, you've got to think all the way through every level of your organization, because it starts at the grassroots," Ms. Stuart says.

"If your strategy is to go out and hire [executives] off the street, it's not sustainable."

These sort of voluntary efforts are not the only solution, however.

The Ontario Securities Commission's review of its new diversity disclosures showed 34 per cent of companies had adopted formal policies to improve diversity by 2016.

The next logical step is to make such policies mandatory to move the dial for the other two-thirds of companies.

Adding an additional requirement to declare a specific diversity goal would create a significant catalyst for change.

If Canada wants to be a world leader in business innovation and new technology by the time it turns 200, it needs to explore all ways to maximize the full potential of its work force. The impact is too critical to wait another 50 years and hope women just happen to fill a bigger minority of top jobs.

-Janet McFarland

Trading places

Spend big to make Vancouver a global gateway

The time is ripe to dream big at Canada's largest port, and put Vancouver in the same league as Singapore and Rotterdam as a global shipping hub.

Investments in new infrastructure and upgrades of existing roads and rail lines will be required to make it possible for the Port of Vancouver to strive for the upper echelon of the global goods-shipping industry.

As Vancouver gains momentum, look for law firms and accounting offices to attract new talent with expertise in international maritime regulations.

Kaity Arsoniadis-Stein, executive director of the Vancouver International Maritime Centre, has made it her mission to help lure more shipping companies to the Port of Vancouver.

Logistics related to the ocean-shipping business extend well beyond navigating choppy waters. Connections by trains and trucks must be improved to address choke points in the Vancouver region, such as the Second Narrows Rail Bridge that goes across Burrard Inlet and other problematic areas where the flow of goods slows down.

The payoff would be enormous economic spinoffs. Vancouver is well-positioned to boost its share of Asia-Pacific trade with North America, competing in many cases against Los Angeles, Long Beach, Calif., San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.

Eco-friendly branding is part of the long-term future. Vancouver is aiming to be the planet's most sustainable port. The Port of Vancouver is expanding a program in which vessels are able to plug into an onshore electricity grid instead of having the ships leave on polluting diesel engines.

And don't forget about the smaller Port of Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia.

Having two vibrant B.C. ports would translate into an economic win for Canada. To achieve that goal, an integrated strategy for Vancouver and Prince Rupert is needed to propel Canada into the top tier of global shipping.

The two federally regulated ports do their own marketing to attract customers overseas but with greater co-ordination, both rivals could shoot and score. Two major B.C. ports are better than one to handle consumer imports arriving in containers from Asia while exporting bulk commodities to foreign markets.

The quest to strengthen imports and exports also includes enlisting the backing of First Nations, terminal operators, municipalities and railways. Canadian National Railway Co. is honing a process to transform heavy oil so that it can be transported in the form of waterproof pellets similar in shape and size to hockey pucks.

-Brent Jang in Vancouver

A new drug deal

Change the tax system to build biotech

We have a budding global corporate champion that thousands of Canadians walk through every day, completely oblivious to its star potential.

It's the University of Toronto.

The school and the laboratories and research hospitals that feed off it form one of the world's greatest life sciences clusters. U of T alone has one of the continent's largest medical schools and produces more peer-reviewed research papers than any other medical centre, according to the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. Too bad all this talent and investment has not spawned a proper industry.

When global investors think of champion Canadian industries, they might think of the Alberta oil sands, aerospace (Bombardier) and gold mining (Barrick). They don't think about Canada's life-sciences prowess because it rarely makes it out of the laboratory and into market. The sector is terrific at research and pumping out patents; it's not so great at turning those patents into commercial companies. A glance at the players on the TSX says as much; it has almost no billion-dollar biotech names.

Compare this with the U.S. market: The collective value of a mere four U.S. biotech biggies – Gilead, Amgen, Celgene and Biogen – was $378-billion (U.S.) in late June. That's almost $200-billion more than the value of all 1,600-plus mining companies on the TSX and about $100-billion more than the value of the entire TSX oil and gas sector. Canada's top pure biotech company is ProMetic Life Sciences, whose market value is about $1.2-billion.

So what does Canada have to do to become a global life-sciences player?

It's not that we're risk averse. Canadians throw fortunes at mining newbies, most of which achieve dud status. But the mining juniors have a big advantage over the junior biotech companies: flow-through shares.

This financing technique passes the tax losses incurred in the profitless exploration phase onto shareholders, effectively reducing the net cost of the investment by about half. For about 30 years, this tax loophole has allowed junior mining companies to raise billions.

The biotech sector has no such advantage. The solution is a no-brainer. If Canada wants a thriving life-sciences sector, it needs to level the playing field.

The arrival of flow-through biotech shares might not guarantee success. But what is certain is that, minus easier financing, all the success achieved in the labs of U of T has little chance of achieving commercial success.

-Eric Reguly

High ambitions

Launch the Starbucks of legal marijuana

Canada is about to get a rare chance to build a big lead in a brand new global industry.

Soon to be the first Group of 20 country to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana, Canada is an early favourite to dominate what could become a huge international market in the future.

"There's a very good chance that in the decades to come we'll see some of the top multinational cannabis companies in the world having Canadian roots," said Chuck Rifici, chief executive of marijuana financier Cannabis Wheaton Income Corp.

This Canada Day marks the start of the one-year countdown, by which time the Cannabis Act is expected to come into force, according to the federal government's timeline.

Meanwhile, the future of the cannabis-reform movement in the United States darkened with the transition to a Republican administration, which counts marijuana hard-liners in its senior ranks.

That essentially gives Canada first crack at establishing a position of strength in the legal pot trade. While the U.S. industry is relegated to a handful of states where medicinal and recreational cannabis has been legalized, federal Canadian legalization can help build a lead in establishing a network of investors, and allowing the industry to grow and evolve.

"Every day the U.S. continues with prohibition of cannabis is a gift to Canada," Mr. Rifici said.

In the early years, growth will be driven from within Canada's borders.

Demand already exceeds supply in the medicinal market, and that gap is likely to persist as more and more recreational users shift from the black market to the legal market.

A recent study by Deloitte pegged the potential size of the Canadian legal-marijuana industry at up to $22-billion after factoring in base retail and ancillary markets, such as growers, makers of infused products, testing labs and security.

In satisfying that demand, Canadian producers can build up brand recognition, which could pay off in eventually tapping foreign markets. Canopy Growth Corp., Canada's largest medical-marijuana producer, is already selling its Tweed brand to German medical-marijuana users.

"A lot of the value is in brands," Mr. Rifici said. "When you buy a Starbucks coffee, most of the value in that product does not come from the bean."

-Tim Shufelt

Bust the digital divide

Make broadband service affordable and accessible for everybody

Try to untether any teenager from their high-speed Internet and you'll hear that a fast connection is not only a necessity for modern life – it's a basic human right.

For the most part, Canadians enjoy widespread access to the Web – about 98 per cent of households have access to Internet connections and many are subscribing to faster services with more capacity.

But not all connections are equal. Canada's vast geography has always posed challenges, and rural customers typically pay more and have fewer choices than their urban counterparts, according to reports from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). For Indigenous communities and populations in remote regions, satellite Internet is often the only option, constricting users with high prices, congested networks, low usage caps and slow speeds.

Still, at a moment when Canada is positioning itself as a leader in digital innovation, biotechnologies and artificial intelligence, ensuring universal, fast and affordable Internet access to information and e-commerce is crucial.

There may also be opportunities to save taxpayers money. Governments around the world are developing digital tools to reduce costs and simplify administration of health care, education and other public services – all areas where private-sector developers are also building new applications.

Other countries have cemented access to broadband Internet as a legal right. Finland was the first to adopt this policy, ensuring Internet providers make connections available to every person and business at a reasonable price. Part of the rationale for the policy was to boost business by enabling electronic transactions. Finns are using more broadband services on increasingly faster connections as a result of a co-ordinated effort involving Internet providers, governments and rural communities.

That kind of joint effort, along with clear timelines and price regulations or other measures to ensure affordability are what's needed next in Canada. The good news is that the country is taking the first steps in that direction, with the CRTC declaring that access to high-speed Internet should be a basic service, setting speed targets and pledging to invest up to $750-million over five years to expand broadband services to remote regions.

-Jacqueline Nelson is The Globe's institutional investment reporter

Cleaning up

Become a cleantech leader by applying what we've learned about AI

Canada became a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) this decade but, in typical fashion, our success had to be validated elsewhere before we noticed. Only after a continuous raid of Canadian-trained "deep learning" experts by foreign giants did Canadian governments, tech leaders and mandarins take action to keep AI scientists here.

Canadian-based researchers have led the way in emerging fields only to see others prosper when the science sparked commerce. For Canada to create the science and lead the breakthrough industries of tomorrow – in clean tech, advanced materials, cancer drugs, etc. – change must come at many levels.

Canada is an appealing destination for foreign researchers (British-born AI pioneer Geoff Hinton came to the University of Toronto from a job at Carnegie Mellon University). Given the turmoil in Britain and Europe, and the United States' turn away from climate science, Canada should pro-actively woo more research scientists to do their ground-breaking work here.

We must turn more Canadian inventions into Canadian innovations. One recent survey found Canada only generates 16 patents for every 1,000 research publications on clean tech, compared with 37 in the United States and 239 in China. Our universities' technology-transfer offices are understaffed, underfunded and lack the skill and sophistication to effectively turn campus breakthroughs into intellectual property (IP) and licensing revenue. Perhaps governments should tie research funding to IP creation strategies – or as ex-BlackBerry general counsel Karima Bawa suggests, establish third-party patent aggregators or sovereign patent funds to ensure more university research transforms into value-creation tools. Like Israel, Canada should wring more money from foreigners when they transfer taxpayer-financed IP acquired via takeovers out of the country.

Ottawa's upcoming IP strategy should include training for academics, entrepreneurs and administrators about the strategic importance of patents. But those same players must also collectively push to create global standards for technologies developed here. Other countries, including China and the United States, effectively ensure new global standards incorporate their homegrown technology, locking in value for their emerging champions. Canada, by comparison, is a "boy scout," says Michel Girard, vice-president of the Standards Council of Canada.

Finally, provincial securities regulators should align with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to ensure Canadian public companies have the same defences against hostile advances as their U.S. peers. We won't create global giants if it remains so easy for foreign buyers to pick off promising Canadian tech firms.

-Sean Silcoff in Ottawa

Taxing matters

Adopt a universal flat tax for capital income

Quick, now. The Nordic dual track is a) a new Olympic event; b) a great way to lose weight in the privacy of your own home; or c) a new tax system that could boost Canada's growth rate and reduce wealth inequality?

Congratulations if you chose option c. Two-track tax systems have been in place in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden for a generation. They tax your pay at an ascending rate, much as Canada's system already does, but they tax capital income – that is, your income from interest, dividends, capital gains, rental income and so on – at a low, flat rate.

This split approach delivers some substantial benefits. For starters, it encourages thrift. It prods people to save and invest so they can derive more of their income from sources such as dividends and interest. This new-found savings zeal increases the supply of investable capital in a country. Everything being equal, access to all that capital spurs the country's economic growth by helping to finance new businesses or expand old ones.

More controversially, a dual-track approach can help counteract rising inequality by taxing extremely large paycheques more heavily than they are now. This could help tame the galloping increases in income inequality Canada has experienced in recent years. Between 1996 and 2011, the top 1per cent of Canadian earners saw their inflation-adjusted before-tax income leap by more than 50 per cent. In contrast, the bottom 90 per cent of Canadian earners saw their paycheques climb only 15 per cent.

Ordinarily, any move to hike taxes on big incomes would chase high earners out of the country or force them underground. But a dual-track system deters a mass migration of the well-heeled by offering them the promise of light taxation on their savings. High earners – and their savings – have a reason to stick around, so they can reap their reward in the form of extremely low tax rates on investment income.

The result, say dual-track advocates such as Kevin Milligan, of the University of British Columbia, is "a reformed tax system that could achieve both greater potential economic growth and enhanced tax fairness." Those are benefits that Canadian taxpayers can applaud just as much as their Nordic counterparts.

-Ian McGugan

Look up

Give the North better infrastructure

For a country that brands itself "the true north, strong and free," we seem to spend surprisingly little time thinking about the vast stretches of tundra and boreal forest that make up most of Canada's land mass.

In forgetting the North, we leave billions of dollars of resources stranded by a lack of infrastructure, and tens of thousands of people living in poverty and rural isolation.

Over the decades, there's been plenty of interest in Canada's Northern resources, whether oil and natural gas in the Mackenzie Valley, gold in the Yukon or iron ore on Baffin Island. But the cost of developing resources without sufficient transportation, energy and communications infrastructure means companies tend to only drill and mine, if at all, when commodities markets are hot – hardly a recipe for sustainable economic growth.

Infrastructure that brings down the cost of transportation and opens the region up for economic diversification is essential. It won't be cheap: an all-weather road up the Mackenzie Valley would cost well over $1-billion; a group wanting to run fibre-optic Internet cables to Nunavut's 25 communities estimates it would cost $850-million; the cost of building a railway to Ontario's mineral-rich Ring of Fire has been estimated at $2-billion.

But a quick glance at the rest of the circumpolar world shows not only that Northern development is possible, but also how much we need to play catch up. Upwards of 20 per cent of Russia's GDP comes from Arctic activity; Norway has a dense Northern communications and transportation network; nearly three times as many people live in Anchorage, Alaska, as in all three of Canada's territories combined.

Our potential for Northern growth is significant. Most notably, there's the prospect of untapped mineral and petroleum riches. There's also burgeoning industries in tourism, fisheries, education and research. A 2013 study from the Northern Communications Information Systems Working Group – comprising representatives from the federal government and the three territorial governments – estimated that significant improvements in Internet connectivity could, by 2023, boost the Northwest Territories' GDP by $294-million, Yukon's by $175-million and Nunavut's by $133-million.

Cargo ships and cruise liners are plying the ice-free summer waters of the Northwest Passage. Space agencies are looking to Inuvik as a satellite base. Most importantly, over the past 30 years, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities have fought hard to secure comprehensive land claims and impact-benefit agreements that allow them to profit from industrial development on their land, making them more likely to support it. Now is the time for Canada to take its North seriously.

-Mark Rendell

We asked six business leaders for their ideas on how to build a more prosperous Canada:

"If we design and implement our first national innovation strategy to manifest into dozens of Canadian companies turning into multi-billion dollar global entities, then we will generate much needed private and public wealth for our country. Let's not become a cheap high-skilled labour tech factory and instead get the public policy right to focus on creating innovation billions, not branch plant pennies, for the next 150 years for Canada's economy."

- Jim Balsillie, Chair of Council of Canadian Innovators and former CEO of BlackBerry

"As an investor active across many sectors in different parts of the world, we're convinced that there is no shortage of opportunities for Canada in the global economy: agro-food, financial services, infrastructure development, artificial intelligence and cleantech. To seize those opportunities investors and businesses need to do three things: have the courage to make real, strategic choices about where we can build globally competitive businesses; be determined to invest heavily in those areas; and develop the entrepreneurial (not managerial) leadership needed to build truly global scale companies."

- Michael Sabia, CEO, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec

"It's a lot about what the government does in terms or regulation. If it's fintech or health care, it's all dependent on regulation and how much the government will work with [start-ups] on helping support disruption. The U.K. for example has more favourable fintech regulation than the U.S., so we've seen a lot of fintech startups in the UK as a result. Even entrepreneurs from here go on and set up offices in the UK because they know that the UK government has certain more favourable regulations on the fintech side. So those changes can make a huge difference."

- Anu Hariharan, Partner, Y Combinator

"We have to find ways to win in the knowledge economy while staying true to our commitment that the creation of wealth has to be shared by everyone."

- Ed Clark, Former CEO, Toronto-Dominion Bank

"Everything is in place. Canada has one of the smartest, most loyal and hardworking workforces in the world. There is just one one tiny little detail that is in the way of success: Canadians don't allow themselves to aim for the stars. Somehow, at some point, it became the 'Canadian' thing to do to build something good instead of something great. Going for greatness is uncomfortable and scares us. We can only become a superpower if we channel our country's potential and combine it with the ambition to be the best in the world at the things that we set our minds to."

- Tobias Lutke, CEO, Shopify Inc.

"Canada should be picking its top five key priorities and investing in them. And by that I mean, this takes a longer term view. A view beyond an election cycle. It takes a view that says building out concepts like the infrastructure bank is a very positive thing. Investing in our universities, and in science, technology and medical research. Canada has an incredible foundation in all of these things, and incredible capacity. But sometimes we get caught up in the details, in the minutiae of execution. We have to get behind [the five things] and get behind them for a period of time that will make a substantive difference."

- Ron Mock, CEO, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan

"Economic growth and national success is tied up in the war for talent. And I think we've had a natural advantage with our immigration policy in the past. It's interesting that President Trump has referenced it, and Michael Bloomberg has referenced it. The U.S., its current administration, has opened a window of opportunity for Canada. People who previously thought about moving to the United States – people who were top of their field in medicine, in biotech , in technology – in some cases are deciding not to, and Canada is a natural destination for those."

- Dean Connor, CEO, Sun Life Finanacial Inc.

"What is often on my mind is the constant search for and development of talented, curious team members. … I do feel optimistic about the future. At the same time, we talk often at Indigo about the need to be continually investing in our people, to be innovating and to recognize that in a truly global world – along with the upside global markets bring – competition will always be intense."

- Heather Reisman, CEO, Indigo Books and Music

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