As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, it’s worth reflecting on what Innis might think about the state of Canada’s economy – particularly where it stands in a global context – and how it could evolve in the next 150 years.
Innis, a University of Toronto professor of political economy who died in 1952, is considered a giant figure in Canada’s economic and political history. His staples theory profoundly helped Canadians define national pride as we slowly weaned from colonial mothering nearly a century ago.
When Justin Trudeau mused in front of world leaders early last year in Davos that Canada’s economic future might be seen through the lens of being a “resourceful” economy, most Canadians didn’t pick up on what he was driving at. Indeed, too many folks piled on the prime minister for appearing to challenge the sacred cows of a resource economy.
In fact, he was making a point about the difference between things and people. But the useless furor that erupted made him walk back the statement instead of really explaining it: that heightened resourcefulness (through people) is what really makes a modern resource economy golden.
At this point, it’s worth dipping back into economic history for a dollop of Innis.
The key propositions of Innis’s work on staples are mostly timeless (and sensible).
Innis saw staples (fish, fur, grains, lumber, etc.) as the commodities that shaped and defined early Canada, geographically, socially and politically. No news there. The magic in his thinking was more nuanced: he employed theoretical frameworks less top down than bottom up.
Innis never seemed to explicitly put value on individuals, but his research took him into Canada’s wilderness and often into direct contact with doers. So he would almost certainly concur that you need to be resourceful to manage, sustain and advance a resource economy. Innis also posited that the opportunities that staples represent mature, and to keep the economy prospering, new markets and opportunities are required.
His thinking blossomed at an important juncture in a young country’s history: Canada sought to define itself in non-colonial terms and his work contributed significantly to Canadian sense of self.
We’re at a similar point at 150-years-old, although in a significantly more global market than Innis could have imagined.
Innis probably would have much to say on the subject of hydrocarbons as a contemporary staple. He would point to Canada’s market access debate and our need to move hydrocarbons to tidewater as the natural evolution of a staples market. He would well understand that when your biggest customer (the United States) becomes your biggest competitor, it’s time to find another market (like Europe) – or another staple.
But why not both?
Let’s think creatively about a people-powered commodity produced by our resources heritage: competency.
Cue the intent of the PM’s comments: resourcefulness is a function of passionate people innovating around a staple.
Many Canadians believe Canada (and particularly Alberta) is a global bad boy when it comes to oil and gas development.
In fact, Canadians are technology and innovation leaders. We’re also performers par excellence in regulatory matters.
But we’re incredibly poor at telling the story.
Carbon management is an example. We’re extremely resourceful when it comes to carbon’s potential, doing world-leading, advanced research and innovation.
But who knows? Many Canadian are more likely to believe that our resource economy is dragging the nation down than that Canadian innovation talent is building it up.
Carbon and the management competencies we have created could be the new staple of our resource economy. And not just element itself, but the skills and talents of people working to change it from liability to asset.
Good resource economies are powered by resourceful people.
As we blow out the candles on our 150th cake, we need to better understand that relationship and tell the world about it.
(If you’re looking for a way to celebrate Canada’s birthday, pick up a copy of Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada. Her chapter on Harold Innis alone is worth the read.)
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.