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Hewers of wood, maybe; but good at it: report

Resources account for 11 per cent of the country’s GDP, half of exports, 37 per cent of foreign investment and a quarter of capital investment.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Hewers of wood, drawers of water.

It's the classic dig about Canadians -- that far too much of what we do is focused on low-value extraction and export of natural resources.

To an extent, it's true. Resources account for 11 per cent of the country's GDP, half of exports, 37 per cent of foreign investment and a quarter of capital investment. Nearly 800,000 Canadians work directly in the sector.

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But a new report by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum tries to debunk the myth that relying on resources for our wealth is "like feasting on empty calories."

Instead, the report makes the case that there's more potential for innovation in the natural resources sector than in any other industry, and ultimately, a lot more on the line for society.

"There is an imperative to innovate in this sector because the stakes are higher -- not just for sustainable economic growth, but for solutions to the very real challenges facing humanity and the planet we all share," according to Towards a More Innovative Future: Insights from Canada's Natural Resources Sector.

The report says the "hewers of wood and drawers of water" narrative is based on a "false dichotomy," which ignores the enormous gains from becoming efficient and environmentally responsible in tapping those vast resources.

"There are always going to be better ways to hew wood and draw water -- that highly-skilled, high-paying jobs and advanced products, processes and system are fundamental to success in resource industries," the report points out.

The report is the culmination of six regional roundtable discussions and a national conference in 2010 and 2011 involving industry leaders, government experts, scientists and academics.

The characterization of resource extraction as the "old economy" isn't particularly helpful. Canada needs to continue to attract massive levels of investment, skilled workers and research know-how, according to the report.

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Among the key conclusions:

  • The industry needs to do a better job of telling its story;

  • Better promotion of K-12 science and engineering education;

  • Enhanced post-secondary skills training;

  • Greater investment in the supporting infrastructure in remote areas, including transportation and telecom links;

  • Better collaboration and information sharing between stakeholders, including resource companies and First Nations.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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