A panel discussion from the SHCA 2023 Infrastructure Summit

By Martin Charlton Communications

There is growing pressure on the federal government ahead of its next budget to recognize the need to plan and invest in trade infrastructure to grow Canada’s economy. 

Advocacy work initiated by the Western Canada Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association (WCR&HCA) has strong momentum. Several national groups dedicated to trade, business, construction, manufacturing and more joined it to form a coalition that is pressing politicians across the country to take this need seriously. Premiers of provincial and territorial governments have confirmed they are on board. 

That need for planning and investment and the effort to have it recognized by the federal government was discussed during a panel discussion held the first day of the SHCA 2023 Infrastructure Summit & Trade Show. Titled  “How Trade and Transportation Infrastructure Intersect in Canada’s Economic Growth Strategy,” the panel brought together representatives of some of those groups in the coalition – John Law, senior fellow with Canada West Foundation and co-author of From Shovel Ready to Shovel Worthy: The Path to a National Trade Infrastructure Plan for the Next Generation of Economic Growth, Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) and Chris Lorenc, president of the WCR&HCA. They were joined by two deputy ministers from the Saskatchewan government, Kyle Toffan of the Ministry of Highways and Jodi Banks of the Ministry of Trade and Export.

Opening and moderating the panel was Gary Mar, president of Canada West Foundation. He says broadly speaking there is infrastructure Canadians want, such as parks. There is infrastructure Canadians need, which includes hospitals and schools. Then there is infrastructure that creates wealth that allows a country to be able to afford the other types of infrastructure. 

Two-thirds of Canada’s GDP depends on trade, which relies on trade and transportation infrastructure. Mar says this reality is not lost on Canada’s premiers. What Canadians produce must be moved to ports to be shipped out of country for Canada to be able to participate in trade. 

The important role trade infrastructure plays in Canada’s economy and its future growth is expressed in the Shovel Ready to Shovel Worthy report authored by Law. In his brief overview of the report, he explained that Canada depends on road, rails, airports, bridges and other forms of trade infrastructure to get products to market. 

“Every country needs good quality trade and transportation infrastructure, but it matters more for Canada,” said Law. “It matters to the extent of being three times more important to Canada from a GDP perspective than it is for the United States, for example, who are not only our major trading partner, but also our major competitor.”

Working together is necessary when advocating for change, Lorenc says, citing a proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”

The U.S. has paid significant attention to its infrastructure with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act being passed, which the White House calls a “once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness.” This legislation will drive forward the rebuilding of American roads, bridges and rails, strengthening supply chains by improving the country’s ports, airports, rails and roads to grow its economy “sustainably and equitably.”  Law says that level of attention and investment is being made by other countries Canada competes against in trade as well.

“Our argument in the Shovel Ready report is that we need something that is not simply focussed on short-term, but rather is a long-term permanent solution for how we do this,” said Law. 

Housing is the federal government’s current infrastructure priority, as evidenced by its 2023 Fall Economic Statement, Van Buren says. There are plans in motion to change the federal Department of Infrastructure to the Department of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities, which Van Buren says is a “very strong signal” of the Liberal government’s focus. She says there is acknowledgement of the civil infrastructure that must be developed to support new housing, but she says there is a need to advocate for the federal government to recognize that trade-enabling infrastructure is a benefit to all Canadians. 

“No matter where you are in Canada, goods and services have to move out and we also need them to come in,” said Van Buren. “We’re working hard [with the other organizations] to make sure that trade-enabling infrastructure is on the table. We want a balanced approach. 

“We can’t just put all of our money now into housing. We have to also look at trade-enabling infrastructure as well as community infrastructure.”

Banks and Toffan spoke about Saskatchewan’s focus on trade and transportation, with Banks highlighting the Saskatchewan Growth Plan and the work being done by her ministry to tell Saskatchewan’s story to the world and encourage trade to strengthen the provincial economy. 

“We have a huge amount of gross domestic product that depends on trade infrastructure,” said Toffan. “Saskatchewan has been doing about $37 billion in trade a year through and we have targets to grow that. That means more transportation infrastructure, not less.”

He outlined the challenges and opportunities from the perspective of the Ministry of Highways, including reduced federal funding of infrastructure, strained capacity in all areas of the supply chain to develop more infrastructure, rising costs due to inflation, the impact of carbon tax and insufficient national trade and transportation planning, as well as geopolitical considerations that can impact the quantity of resources, such as potash, that are needed by other nations. 

“These investments are being
made for our kids, our grandkids, and our great grandkids, no different than the investments made in the 1800s and early 1900s.”

– Kyle Toffan, Ministry of Highways

Toffan also touched upon the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on economic borders signed by Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba in April 2022. The key priorities of the three provinces are planning, investment and partnership opportunities with the private sector as well as harmonizing the regulatory environment, but elections held in Alberta and Manitoba since the signing have significantly slowed progress. 

Advocating for federal investment into economic corridors is another priority. 

“If Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba can find three or four quick wins, some really big-ticket items that need investment, we’ll have a much better chance at getting investment than if we went at it alone, so we are trying to figure out a way to coordinate that as well,” said Toffan. 

He says some judge major investments in infrastructure projects that are expected to serve the province for 100 years after just two to three years of operation, which is short-sighted.

“These investments are being made for our kids, our grandkids, and our great grandkids, no different than the investments made in the 1800s and early 1900s,” said Toffan. “We have to think differently about these investments. They are nation-building and they have the opportunity to unlock all kinds of economic potential.”

Working together is necessary when advocating for change, Lorenc says, citing a proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” He says the three provinces signing the MOU is an important example of that. 

Successful advocacy work includes patience, principles, commitment, a stated purpose and resources. It is also important to understand your audience and harness public opinion. The message you deliver must be tailored to meet their needs, Lorenc says, otherwise they have very little appetite to listen. Going where voters are and gently persuading them to see your point of view is also necessary. 

Getting to this point of a coalition of like-minded organizations coming together to deliver a shared message to politicians, and having the Canada Trade Infrastructure Plan (CTIP) developed to present them, has taken about four years of advocacy work. It started when representatives of the WCR&HCA met with Van Buren to discuss the need for research related to trade and transportation. That is when Canada West Foundation was approached about developing a report, which Law authored. It was released in May 2022. 

The next groups to be approached were the Business Council of Canada, Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. They were asked to be part of a nation-building exercise that recognizes that two-thirds of Canada’s GDP is trade dependent and that three billion jobs coast to coast are sustained by this trade activity. It was pointed out that Canada’s reputation as a trading partner has fallen and needs repair to ensure Canada stays competitive and is viewed as a reliable trading partner. As a nation, Canada produces more than it consumes, and it must be moved to market. All of those principles along with the contents of Law’s report were used to develop CTIP.

CTIP urges the Council of the Federation to pursue a federally-leveraged, nation-
building plan to revitalize Canada’s trade-enabling infrastructure to support sustained economic growth and expand and diversify Canada’s global trade profile.  It says Canada should adopt globally recognised best practices and harness recommendations flowing from the Shovel Ready report to “usher in an era of long-term, predictable and high-value investments in Canada’s trade infrastructure.”

The process of getting this plan to the federal government began in January 2023 with a meeting with then-premier of Manitoba, Heather Stefanson, who was serving as chair of the Council of the Federation, which is made up of all 13 provincial and territorial premiers in Canada. She was presented CTIP and asked to support and champion it at a July meeting of the council. She agreed to that request.

At that July meeting, there was unanimous support for CTIP from the premiers who explicitly endorsed its principles. They urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to convene a First Ministers’ Meeting dedicated to the linked priorities of competitiveness and strategic infrastructure. The next premier to take over as chair of the council was Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston, who sent a letter in August to Trudeau reminding him of that request. It was again repeated in fall 2023. 

At the same time, meetings have been held with federal opinion leaders, deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers across the country, organized and led by the coalition of organizations behind CTIP (Business Council of Canada, Canada West Foundation, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, CCA, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Civil Infrastructure Council Corporation and the WCR&HCA).

Lorenc says the objective of those meetings is to push for the 2024 federal budget to include an announcement of an investment that is sustained, predictable, incremental and driven through a lens of the return on investment to the GDP and nation-
building.. This would not be an investment based on per capita requirements, but rather one that looks at what the country needs to develop and enhance a strategic trade-enabling infrastructure network that will result in growth and wealth generation. 

“That is advocacy at work. No single entity can do it on its own,” said Lorenc. “Saskatchewan can’t do what you heard the deputy minister speak to on its own. It has an MOU with two colleague provinces. Western premiers can’t do it individually. They meet as Western premiers. Provincial and territorial premiers can’t do it individually on their own. They do it through the Council of the Federation. Heavy construction associations, business organizations, manufacturers and exporters, rail, air, you pick your industry, can’t do it on their own, but together we can go further make a significant contribution to building this country. That’s what this advocacy is all about.”