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Canada – US MBA Economic Forum

August 31, 2008

My experience participating in the week-long Canada-US economic partnership forum for American MBA students, hosted by the University of Ottawa, was truly phenomenal. Living so near the border in Seattle, Washington, as well as being married to a Canadian citizen, had given me a good foundation of knowledge of Canadian history, policies, and nuances. However, this program significantly deepened my understanding of the business climate and relationship between the two countries.

The number of lectures and activities contributing to my general understanding and enrichment, of which I will name a few, was staggering. First, I previously had no appreciation of the degree of social and commercial autonomy which the federal government allots to Quebec. The presentations implied that there is a substantial amount of initiative by the provincial government to court international commerce and trade on its own behalf. Accordingly, I’m sure the phrase “international trade,” to many Quebecers, very much applies to trade with the rest of Canada as well. Additionally, I was surprised to learn that trade between the US and Canada is very much aligned on a North-South axis versus one that is East-West. I was already well aware that social ties followed this pattern; indeed, my wife’s family, all of whom are from (and currently reside in) Vancouver, have long felt they have much more in common with Seattle than with Toronto or Montreal. That inter-provincial barriers partly drive commerce to follow the same pattern was surprising. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for our group of future business leaders, was information and strategies on developing and expanding companies. As we become decision-makers in our separate enterprises, we will sooner – rather than later – have input on how our companies grow. Information in this seminar on the availability, skill, and price of Canadian labor, as well as other factors of cost-benefit analysis of expanding or relocating into Canada, have given us a foundation for pursuing potentially significant business development strategies.

Personally, I took away a couple of very important impressions. First, I intend to pursue a career in commercial real estate, and a very hot topic here in Seattle is the potential “Vancouverization” of the city. Essentially, this describes making downtown buildings taller and more sleek, increasing infill development, setting building facades further back from the street, and making the area greener and more pedestrian-friendly. In a word, the city government wants to make downtown more livable. Although this is largely a matter of urban planning and local issues, I did pick up some helpful, insightful information on Vancouver’s development and the appropriateness of Seattle’s endeavor to emulate it. In our tour and presentation at the Bank of Canada, the panel spoke very frankly about their policies regarding Canadian interest rates, their past history, and what they see for the future. Clearly this influences the magnitude of foreign investment in the country, as well as playing a part in determining the degree to which foreign countries will have a presence in Canada. Without having done further research into the matter, I would suspect that a significant portion of Vancouver’s fortunes, as a major Canadian city with close ties to Asia, its status as the primary Pacific port, as well as a highly ethnic population, rest in these policies. I do know, however, that the inflow of capital, people, and businesses from Asia, particularly from Hong Kong, has had a significant impact on the Vancouver real estate market. Seattle does not have the same recent history, and, urban planning issues aside, I am not convinced that it is entirely appropriate for Seattle to emulate the same real estate development and growth pattern.

Lastly, I was left with a unique personal observation. In the US, time spent on the east coast in cities such as New York, Boston, and Washington, DC can leave one with the impression that business and political leaders see the eastern US – with its government organizations and financial institutions – as “The US.” The rest of the country is relegated to either a support or observatory role. I found this to be true in Canada even to a stronger degree. Living in Seattle with a wife who had grown up in Vancouver and Calgary, Canada to me had been western Canada, and I was anxious to take a trip east. After introducing myself and explaining my situation to everybody I met, I was repeatedly left with others tacitly implying that “Oh, well yes, I guess that’s Canada out there too…” I found this to be extremely surprising. According to a mid-September issue of The Economist, Alberta has – by far – the most robust provincial economy and is debt-free. Calgary, the most highly-educated city, is second only to Toronto in the number of corporate headquarters, and Vancouver is annually at the top of the UN’s list of the best cities in the world in which to live. Again, I was quite surprised to discover how casually dismissive most easterners seemed to be of western Canada. As we here on the “left coast” of the US have had similar experiences, perhaps that explains at least part of the reason that both commercial and social regional ties lie on North-South axes.