Infrastructure and resources key to huge opportunity for Canada

  • National Newswatch

To realize full natural resource potential, business and government must expand infrastructureOne of the welcome measures in this year's federal budget was a decision by the federal government to continue to invest in infrastructure.  Around the world, many countries are challenged to balance their budgets, and some are making the opposite choice, which future generations may regret.Just as our grandparents and their parents did, today's Canadian taxpayers must encourage governments to take the policy decisions that will make sure our roads, bridges, railways, pipelines, ports, canals, and tunnels are there to help support our economic aspirations.For Canada, one of the world's great modern trading countries, this is especially important.  Our standard of living owes much to the fact that we have been able to harness resources and move products to markets across our country and to customers in every part of the globe.Lately, modern democracies, including Canada's, have been finding it harder to build this kind of infrastructure.  If people aren't sure what the benefits are of expanding our port, rail and pipeline capacity -- or who will enjoy them -- it can seem tempting to sit on the sidelines of these debates.  Tempting, but risky too.The risk is that the only voices heard, and the arguments that carry the day are those that focus on and can exaggerate the risks.  Building new infrastructure causes inconvenience, costs money, disturbs the environment and involves safety risks as well.That's why we have environmental and safety assessment processes that are exhaustive, time consuming, extensive, and expensive, but are essential.  And these must be the basis for how we decide what can be built and how it should be done.It's troubling to see anxious politicians sometimes deciding that these processes can and should be ignored, replaced with a less rigorous test of “social license”.  My point here is not that public input is irrelevant, but that it should not be a substitute for expert analysis, scientific and engineering rigor.Years ago, when I worked with one of Canada's largest forest products companies, public concern about sustainable forest management was on the rise, public policy embraced this priority, and smart and responsible corporations reinvented themselves.The end result was a healthier forest sector, with reforestation practices based on expert science, and informed by public values, rather than fewer jobs and a forest that was no healthier, which would have been the consequences of putting too little faith in hard evidence and science.The forest example is relevant to me personally, but speaks to a larger reality about Canada's economy.  As once poorer parts of the world are finding economic opportunity, Canada's resources are in greater demand than ever.  Our minerals and metals, our food, forest products and energy can help fuel, feed and build the world, and grow our economy and opportunities at home too.   Maybe this idea sounds obvious, but it's disconcerting that it's becoming more challenging to meet the world demand and create the economic opportunities younger Canadians so clearly need.Some people wonder if resource sectors add enough value to our economy.  Some guess that resource jobs consist solely of hard physical labour, in remote areas, and tough climates -- jobs they might not want, or feel their children might not be interested in.We need to open our minds about the many ways that trade in resources adds value to our economy.  And recognize that the jobs that flow from our resource trade are more diverse and exciting than ever before.There are careers in law, business management, finance, engineering, logistics, IT, marketing, product development, sales and accounting.  There's work that harnesses knowledge of technology, ecology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.  Markets and new products are developing in fields ranging from genetics to electronics to pharmaceuticals and next generation plastics and garments.Across our resource sectors, and flowing from our resources platforms, there are literally millions of high-wage, interesting careers opening up in the coming decade.  The challenge isn't whether we can find opportunity for Canadians; it's whether we seize the abundant opportunities that are apparent already.In many cases, the first step to doing so is recognizing that we need great infrastructure.  While some argue that we can no longer figure out how to move our resources products to new markets efficiently and safely, I'd say the evidence is overwhelmingly in the opposite direction.Because here in Canada, we may just be the world's best when it comes to responsible, sustainable, safe, innovative and economically productive trade in resources.David Emerson served as federal Minister of Industry, Foreign Affairs and International Trade.  His experience outside politics includes serving as CEO of forest products company Canfor and CEO of the Vancouver International Airport.