Canada's Fear of Summer Camp

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


When I was a kid, I was a bit of a wimp. I never wanted to go to summer camp, I just wanted to stay at home. Or maybe I was just a typical Canadian. We all know that Canada is one of the greatest countries in which to live, but could that be making Canadian businesses perilously wimpy? It's just so comfortable to stay at home.

Here is what I see in the construction business. Our global industry is 'globalizing' and consolidating: It's clear there are going to be far fewer construction companies in the world, and they will likely be much larger. (You will either be large, or you will have a great 'niche'.) The Europeans and Americans have already invaded Canada, and the Asians are on their way. They are buying up Canadian companies and willing to go head to head with the rest. (I have been directly warned by several international companies that resistance is futile - what a load of crap). But what are the Canadian companies doing? Are we 'bulking up' on financial and professional capability, or taking our obvious talents to the international markets, or doing acquisitions and strategic alliances to build for the future? I see some engineering firms doing this, but the Canadian contractors barely at all. You are far more likely to see a Canadian contractor demanding protectionist measures from their local governments or selling out to a foreigner than stepping confidently out into the world. Canadians are great builders, but our industry is at risk of being run over.

Our governments aren't much help. While other countries actively support the export of their construction expertise, our governments instead actively recruit international firms to come here, and then - believe it or not - they (meaning Canadian taxpayers) directly subsidize these international firms to further expand into other countries. It's ridiculous. But blaming governments for our own lack of courage is ..... wimpy (except when I do it).

We met last week with the CEO of the International Finance Corporation, a subsidiary of the World Bank that provides project financing and equity for business initiatives all over the world. They told us that they can't believe it: Canada has contributed 22% of the equity they use to run their business, but almost never uses their services. Except for our mining companies, they said, Canada is invisible in international markets. (Of course, when I think of mining, I still think of Falconbridge and Inco, both of whom could have used their home base to build a global powerhouse, but instead sold out and grabbed the cash.)

In the end, Canada's sovereignty will not likely be lost because of some referendum or war, it will be lost because we will willingly hand over control of our economy and our individual destinies (and high paying knowledge jobs).

My parents, of course, made me go to summer camp. I won't say that is was more fun than staying at the cottage because it wasn't. But apparently they figured I needed to grow up. This one was a bit of a diatribe, thanks for reading.