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Photo composition: Peter Munk, left, and Bank of Montreal main branch on Saint-Jacques.
Photo composition: Peter Munk, left, and Bank of Montreal main branch on Saint-Jacques.

Report on Business at 50

Why corporate Canada's heart now beats in the West Add to ...

In 1962, hip, affluent Canadians, eager to catch the fresh new sounds of the Fab Four from Liverpool, were buying hi-fi systems with turntables tucked into old English-style furniture.

One stereo maker, a brash young Hungarian immigrant named Peter Munk, placed an ad in the first issue of The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, showing components fitting neatly into “an Elizabethan refectory table.”

It was a pitch aimed at the anglophile tastes of many business readers, who still saw Canada as an Atlantic nation, with its commercial life centred on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

Fifty years later, it is a vastly different Canada – as we strive to be a Pacific power, to build relationships with China and wrestle with the challenge of laying a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the B.C. coast.

Report on Business has chronicled this westward march, from Montreal’s waning years as the dominant financial hub, to Toronto’s emergence as the northern apex of a continental economy – and now to Calgary and Vancouver as gateways to a surging Asia.

That geographical shift is the symptom of a deeper tension – between a powerful resources economy, now dominated by western energy, and a vital but vulnerable manufacturing sector, based largely in the East. And while we built national champions in mining and oil, we have failed tragically to create and keep a powerhouse in high technology.

All of this drama has been played out over the decades by a rich (in character and finances) cast of players, from bankers and swindlers, to manufacturers and energy tycoons – but the most colourful of all may be that same Peter Munk, whose 50-year odyssey parallels Canada’s economic history.

As a Toronto manufacturer of consumer electronics, he crashed and burned in the late 1960s, a casualty of his own mismanagement and Canada’s unforgiving treatment of innovation. After a successful foray into real estate, he built a global leader, Barrick Gold , now the largest gold miner in the world and the fifth-largest company on the Toronto Stock Exchange. He has emerged, at 84, as an elder statesman with a classic Canadian résumé: He made his biggest mark by digging stuff out of the ground.

Today, more than half of Barrick’s operations are in the Asia-Pacific region and South America – and yet, in Mr. Munk’s formative years, Canadian titans, and titan wannabes, were unabashedly Eurocentric.

In the Report on Business of 1962, it was still the goal of any rising plutocrat to be a British lord or to consort with lords – and this was even before Conrad Black. Conglomerate-builder E.P. Taylor announced he would make big moves in Britain, and Anglo-Canadian grocer Garfield Weston was eyeing opportunity in rebuilding Germany.

Yet the big economic story that year was just how tenuous this link with Europe would become. The idea of a united Europe was in ascendance, not in decline, as today. With Britain trying to join the European Common Market – it would take another decade – and the dawn of a Common Agricultural Policy, Canadian exporters were feeling abandoned.

The Atlantic era of Canadian business was grinding to a close, and the U.S. relationship, always strong and often contentious, had become even more critical. In a world splintering into economic blocs, the country realized where its future lay – and in 1965 forged a groundbreaking free-trade pact in autos and auto parts with our southern neighbour. The Atlantic country was now resolutely North American.

Follow the money

Canadians are easily distracted by resource booms, and one of the hottest erupted in the Timmins region of Northern Ontario in the early 1960s. The Texas Gulf Sulphur strike of copper, zinc and silver dominated the pages of the new ROB. At the peak of speculative mania in 1964, the Toronto Stock Exchange saw a record 28.7 million shares change hands in a day – while in 2012 a normal trading day might see volumes of 400 million shares.

When Canadians find stuff in the ground, they take leave of their senses, unleashing contagions of get-rich-quick thinking. Texas Gulf’s strike led to the Windfall affair, named for a company controlled by mining legend Viola MacMillan, who shockingly went to jail for stock manipulation.

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