Western Canada is suffering from inadequate infrastructure to get commodities to tidewater, but the path to address the shortcoming is unclear.
In 2012, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved to fast track the approval process for large infrastructure projects in Canada by giving cabinet ministers discretion on the scope of environmental assessments needed for developments.
The laws were to enable the development of needed infrastructure in Western Canada, and were popular with the business community and the conservative base at the time.
However, the recent legal setback for the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP) expansion originates from this decision because the Federal Court of Appeal saw deficiency in what the National Energy Board had undertaken, particularly in the marine and tanker area.
In 2016, before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government approved TMP, it introduced an interim process to improve federal oversight of major projects and to restore public confidence in the process. This process also proved to be inadequate.
But the fault for the current boondoggle the country is in does not sit squarely on Harper’s shoulders, or on Trudeau’s.
The fault lays in lack of foresight and imagination of a long line of provincial and federal leaders toward preparing for a world far beyond the next election cycle.
Building large infrastructure projects the scale of a replacing and twinning the existing TMP has never been easy in Canada.
Consider the obstacles the original Canadian Pacific Railway faced in the late 1800s, including the struggle to reach agreements with various First Nations, and it quickly becomes clear that building critical infrastructure in Canada has always been messy.
But it’s starting to feel that between the red tape and poll-driven political climate in Canada, it’s nearly impossible to focus on long-term nation building projects, especially if they don’t provide immediate dividends.
But consider China.
Here is a country that can throw down infrastructure in a thoughtful plan executed over decades, which has given the country a competitive advantage over most economies for the foreseeable future.
The country is building and expanding multiple deep water ports in South Asian cities such as Colombo in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan, which will drastically reduce transportation time from the Middle East to Asia.
China is also spearheading a massive rail system dubbed the China-Europe Railway Express that will help the country extend its clout on the Eurasian landmass.
These transcontinental freight corridors and ports will make it difficult for Canadian commodities to compete in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.
A 2017 report titled, “The long view: how will the global economic order change by 2050?” by PricewaterhouseCoopers, analyzed wealthy countries by their projected global gross domestic product (GDP) with purchasing power parity (PPP).
According to the study, China is set to quickly become the most dominant economy in the world.
In 2016, China’s economy was worth $11.35 trillion, while U.S. was worth $18.5 trillion.
In 2030 China’s economy is set to be worth $26.5 trillion with the U.S. at $23.5 trillion.
In 2050 China’s economy will be worth $50 trillion while the U.S. will be worth $34 trillion.
Canada is set to slide from the 10th largest economy in 2016 at $1.5 trillion to having the 17th largest in 2050 at $3.1 trillion.
GDP rankings were calculated at a constant 2016 U.S. dollar.
Canada’s economy slipping in importance on the world stage is inevitable as countries with massive populations develop.
But it is clear that we need to develop infrastructure on the western coast to be able to compete in the emerging economies, which are largely located in Asia.
The Canadian Northern Corridor is a concept for a transportation corridor through Canada’s North, with up to six new conduits to tidewater.
The corridor would be approximately 7,000 km long and include road, rail, pipeline, electrical transmission and communication lines, and it would provide the base infrastructure to develop Canada’s north for the next century.
It’s difficult to fathom it happening in the current political climate, yet this is exactly the kind of move China is making.
Canadian infrastructure is primarily a north-south based system that was built to meet the needs of the current century.
Hydro lines, pipelines, and roads have been primarily built for north-south trade and travel with our largest trading partner, the United States.
There is little doubt that our infrastructure keeps us under the thumb of U.S. interests, and there is little sign this will change anytime soon.
Successive federal and provincial governments have said time and time again “it’s time to diversify our markets,” to get away from being exposed to the internal political climate in the U.S., and outright economic bullying.
Political posturing aside, geography dictates that Canada will always be hitched to the U.S. economy and we will always be vulnerable to economic bullying.
But to maintain any degree of sovereignty from the U.S., Canada has to start thinking long term, as China does.
Canada and China are very different countries on almost every measure and we compare favourably on most, especially when it comes to human rights and the environment.
However, when it comes to long-term strategic planning and the ability to actually pull it off, Canada has a lot to learn.
If Canadian oil exports are confined to fire sale bargains to U.S. companies, our strength as a confederation that supports the best interest of all citizens is undermined.
If the growth of commodity exports out of the prairie provinces continues to be restricted by the existing rail bottlenecks, our sovereignty is at risk.
Farmers know better than most how competitive the world market is, and there is a risk that transportation costs will price Canadian commodities out of some important markets for the foreseeable future.
Political leadership is needed to address immediate logistical needs to promote trade, but also to position the country to be competitive in the next century.
And this leadership needs to start with a proper consultation process with First Nations, because that is what the laws of our land require.
The Canadian Northern Corridor may be a far-fetched idea, especially considering the prairie provinces have enough problems keeping their existing roads drivable.
But if this project isn’t the future of Canadian infrastructure, then what is?
What is our 10, 20 or 50-year plan to address our needs as a trading nation, and what steps are being made in terms of consultation and planning right now to move in the right direction?
Our political leaders need to articulate their vision for our future so that we can see we are on the right path.
This will help citizens feel that a setback is temporary, and that we are not hopelessly knee deep in a never-ending fiasco.