For the solar winds and ions swept into our earth’s magnetic fields, it’s an explosive end to an incredible journey. But for those catching the energy, it can be a beginning, a kind of positive recharge.
Inspired by the extraordinary polar lights, about 150 members of the Banff Forum – community leaders, business executives, policy makers, academics, journalists — gathered in Yellowknife recently to discuss Canada’s own incredible journey, and how we can convert some of our illusions into opportunities.
Here’s some of what we debated:
1. The illusion of consensus, in an age of division
The TransMountain pipeline debate is just the latest reminder of the challenge of consensus. While meaningful consultations are critical to any sound decision, Canadians know consent can be illusory. We sat down with the premier and speaker of the North West Territories to better understand their approach to decision-making, as the legislature here operates free of party politics and seeks consensus on major issues. They require a lot of talk, and listening. But when decisions are made, they tend to be accepted by future governments. Policies here are rarely torn up, as is politically vogue now in the south. The northern approach seems to work well for a small population — 120,000 or so in NWT — but would be harder in more populous and diverse regions. The deliberative nature could also lead to deeper divisions among those who feel slow decisions mean no decisions. Can a balance be reached?
2. The illusion of innovation, in an age of disruption
Despite a lot of government money over the decades, Canada still struggles with innovation — even how to define and measure it. Do we focus too much on commercial outcomes, like the value of startups? And do we overly obsess with software, and what gets stuffed in our smart phones? Some of Canada’s most important innovations revolves around the physical economy and trees, oil and gas, agriculture, fisheries and health care – things you see a lot of in the north. Up here, ingenuity is the uber of survival.
3. The illusion of business growth, in an age of scale
We’re a nation of Mom and Pop enterprises – good at starting businesses, not great at growing them, and even worse at shutting them down. There’s something like 1.1 million registered businesses in Canada, and yet only 2,500 of them have 500 employees or more. More than 75% have fewer than 10 employees and 55% have only 1-4 employees. The number of large Canadian businesses has not grown since 2005, while our business creation index has dropped in recent years, even as the rate of U.S. business creation rose. To help those businesses grow, we may need to see more businesses die. While Canadians tend to blanche at the idea, the death of firms — like big trees falling— is often what allows all those small firms to grow.
4. The illusion of financial stability, in an age of volatility
Financial volatility returned this year to global markets, and Canadians shouldn’t feel immune. Just because we’re not Turkey or Argentina doesn’t mean we’re not going to feel the pain of rising U.S. interest rates and a stronger U.S. dollar. We all know we’ve lost out habit of squirrelling away acorns for a harsh winter. Our household debt exceeds $2-trillion – five times what it was in 1990 and more than we collectively produce in a year. About three-quarters of that is in mortgages. That’s not necessarily bad, at least for those who can afford their mortgage payments. But incomes, over a generation, have not kept pace – rising from about $50,000 for a typical family in 1990 to $76,900 in 2015. How did we get away with it? The illusion of low interest rates. Yes, winter is coming, and the impact on household finances could be chilly.
5. The illusion of global trade, in an age of protectionism
The near north is not the most obvious place to discuss the future of trade, but that may be a signal that we’re looking in the wrong places for opportunities. In some respects, the two big economic issues of 2018 – Nafta and TransMountain – are rooted in the trading infrastructure of the 1800s, which was built along the 49th parallel. We may now have the chance to carve some equally historic infrastructure to the north, with an Arctic Ocean corridor. While the idea has been around for decades, it’s regaining steam, with hopes for rail lines and pipelines to the north, where new ports could connect them to the world. There’s also the option for new population centres. to help decongest Toronto and Vancouver. Yellowknife, which is only is one third of the way from Canada’s south to the north pole, is home to just 20,000 people. And the North West Territories is home to just 40,000 or so — about the size of a good crowd at a Toronto Blue Jays game. As they like to say up here, there’s room to grow. A signal of hope: flights into Yellowknife this season are crowded with Asian tourists, looking beyond borders in a world that’s changing faster than Canada. Without illusion.
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