We all know the guy. You see him at the wedding reception or summer barbeques – maybe he's your cousin's husband or the guy from work a few cubicles down. He's pleasant enough, but he just doesn't know quite how to carry himself or hold a normal conversation. He says weird things and has bad breath. We have a term for him: he's socially awkward.
Recent events have raised an unsettling question about Canada and our role in the global economy. Are we carrying ourselves properly? Do we say weird things? Are we "globally awkward"?
I'm the biggest, proudest Canada booster around, but at times it's necessary to look at our nation with a critical eye and ask what it is we're doing (or not doing) that has eroded our global appeal. This has nothing to do with Rob Ford or Justin Bieber who, as out of control as they appear to be, are at least interesting. When it comes to the economy, we're losing whatever hip factor we had back when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics and Canada was rebounding nicely from the recession.
Consider our foreign investment policy. While some flexibility to make decisions on the fly might make sense for Ottawa, foreign investors from around the world are looking on in disbelief at the vagueness of our investment rules. It's the equivalent of joining an online dating website. When prompted to describe what physical qualities you're seeking in a mate, the socially awkward person would write: "I'm not telling you yet. But why don't you get all dressed up, buy me an expensive dinner, be as charming as you can – and at the end of the date I'll let you know what I'm looking for."
What about our inability to cobble together a single securities regulator? Or our insistence on maintaining supply management in agriculture? These policies might make sense to some Canadians, but they're ridiculous to global investors and trading partners.
Then there's the fact that Canadian companies are often ignored or overlooked on the global stage. We're the nerd standing at the punch bowl alone, busily pretending to text someone on his phone, hoping to look cool but failing miserably. Of course that statement is a generalization – some Canadian companies are fiercely competitive global players – but by and large, we play the wallflower.
This global awkwardness stems from our unwillingness to see ourselves through the same lenses that the rest of the world sees Canada: Friendly people, great resources, but no compelling economic reason to do business with. That's why we keep slipping down the World Economic Forum's rankings of global competitiveness (Number 14 and falling, the last time I checked).
Becoming less globally awkward requires us to become more globally literate. This doesn't mean learning foreign languages (although that wouldn't hurt). Rather, it requires our businesses and governments to reorient their perspectives. It's not about just about us. It's about how the rest of the world perceives us.
Arvind Gupta is CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs, a group that works to match Canadian businesses with top-notch researchers at universities. It's often a tough slog getting businesses to think of themselves as globally relevant.
"You can grow through acquisition, or through gaining domestic market share, but these are limited," he explained to me over a recent lunch in Calgary. "The third way to grow is to take your products and services to the world. In Canada, we've got some of the most talented university researchers, and we should be leveraging this to make forays into the global business community. But too often our vision is limited."
He believes global companies overlook Canadians when searching for partners, and he questions why. Could it be that Canadians need more confidence? More international business savvy? More global literacy?
We need all of it, and we need it quickly. If we fail to change the way we are perceived by the global economy, continuing to fuss about what's good for this region or that, we will continue to slip down the competitiveness rankings. It's time for Canada to shed its global awkwardness. Our future prosperity as a nation hangs in the balance.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based Chief Economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.