Canada will squander the vast promise of recent free-trade deals if it doesn't do a much better job of promoting Canadian exports.
That's the conclusion of a report to be released Monday by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which says Ottawa should overhaul and reinvest in its trade promotion efforts if it is serious about fixing the country's export problems.
"We need to rally and we need to come back," said Cam Vidler, the chamber's director of international policy. "We're competing against other countries … who are investing heavily in their companies. If we don't respond, we're going to be facing a tilted playing field."
The government needs to match the "ambition" of its trade-first foreign policy – highlighted by recently negotiated trade deals with Europe and South Korea – to what is being done "on the ground," Mr. Vidler explained.
The chamber points out that Canada suffers from a weak "business brand" in foreign markets, inadequate financing and training of its front-line trade advisers, and a disjointed array of underused programs for exporters, delivered through multiple departments and agencies.
The report comes amid growing concern about Canada's lagging export performance, particularly since the recession.
Canada's merchandise export volumes are still below where they were in 2000, in spite of rapid growth in overall global trade. Canada has lost significant share in the important U.S. market, a problem that has perturbed Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz in recent months.
The federal government will move this week to address some of the chamber's concerns, by announcing that it is imbedding at least 25 trade commissioners in various industry trade associations, according to government officials. The commissioners, who advise companies on trade, will be deployed across Canada in the offices of groups such as Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, Information Technology Association of Canada and Mining Association of Canada.
The idea is to make trade commissioners the "eyes and ears" of the government on trade, while offering businesses a single point of contact for all trade-related services and activities the government offers, officials said.
Trade Minister Ed Fast has also begun holding regular meetings with officials of Export Development Canada, Canadian Commercial Corp., the Trade Commissioner Services and other government agencies to better co-ordinate their activities and review financing projects.
In early June, Mr. Fast will host a visit to Canada of 10 trade ministers from Asian countries.
The Ottawa-based Chamber of Commerce report also warns that Canada is missing opportunities because it's the only Group of Seven country without a dedicated development finance institution to finance riskier aid projects in developing countries. And it notes that 80 per cent of the country's foreign aid budget goes to international organizations, such as the World Bank, where Canadian companies are failing to win their fair share of contracts.
These deficiencies are magnified because of Canada's lagging export performance in recent years. The report says that Canada is underinvesting compared with rival trading countries in the fastest-growing regions of the world, particularly Asia and Africa. And efforts to diversify exports beyond the United States have stalled. The share of exports destined for countries other than the United States has been stuck at 25 per cent since 2009, after rising significantly in the early 2000s.
"We like to pat ourselves on the back that we are a trading nation, but when you actually delve into the numbers [it's not necessarily the case]," Mr. Vidler said.