Asia Pacific Gateway - Brief History of Canada's Pacific Gateway

The concept of Canada as a "gateway" between Asia and the rest of North America is not a recent phenomenon. Since the late 1800s, Vancouver has served as a transportation hub for the flow of goods and services across the Pacific. Historical milestones include the first overseas shipment of lumber from the Port of Vancouver in 1864, as well as the 1886 arrival of the first passenger train to the West Coast via the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

Asian immigrants, especially Chinese, have played an important role in facilitating Canada's Pacific Gateway. Beyond the 15,000 or so labourers who came to help build the CPR, Chinese immigrants also contributed to the commercial foundations of the Gateway, by establishing import-export firms and related businesses. Yet the people-to-people contacts that the Gateway facilitated were not always readily embraced by the local population. Fears of the "Yellow Peril" led to the imposition of a punitive head tax to impede the inflow of Chinese, and ultimately to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. Indian immigrants faced a similarly unwelcoming environment.

In the last 30 years or so, various "Pacific Gateway" strategies have been initiated at different levels of Canadian government. Starting with the "Third Option" in the Foreign Policy White Paper of 1970, the federal government began to see a need for the country to diversify its US-centred trade toward the Pacific Rim. This was followed by the 1984 creation of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a national think-tank aimed at promoting Canada-Asia relations and greater awareness of Asia among Canadians. The $6 million joint federal-provincial Asia Pacific Initiative, from 1987 to 1990, led to some 60 different projects in sectors such as transportation, tourism, finance and education. Other federal initiatives included Canada's Year of the Asia Pacific in 1997 (which culminated in the APEC Summit in Vancouver of November that year), as well as SUCCESS and Western Economic Diversification's Gateway to Asia Project, which was inaugurated in 2001 and continues to link Canadian goods and services with Asian markets to this day.

In 2003, the BC government initiated a $1.1-billion transportation plan called "Opening Up BC" to expand local infrastructure over three years, so as to position the province as an economic gateway to global markets. Established in 1994, the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council has a similar mission to provide seamless logistical services, but solely within the local vicinity of Vancouver.

In 2005, the BC provincial government launched its Asia Pacific Gateway Initiative, which calls for $12.1 billion to be invested in new infrastructure over the next three years. BC's plan is notable in that beyond the Asia Pacific Trade Council and advisory committees it will create, the province has also set aside funds for cultural and educational initiatives, such as a possible Asia-Pacific Museum, as well as a proposed university devoted to Asia Pacific studies. Both federal and provincial initiatives received an extra boost from Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit in mid- September 2005, to both the East and West Coasts of Canada.

In October 21, 2005, the Martin government unveiled the Pacific Gateway Act (Bill C-68), committing the federal government to $590 million to be invested in transportation infrastructure, as well as the establishment of a Pacific Gateway Council to advise the government on the future allocation of funds. While the defeat of the Martin Government brought a temporary halt to this initiative, the Harper government announced one year later a modified version called the Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative, which commits $591 primarily to transportation infrastructure projects in British Columbia and Alberta. In early 2007, the federal government increased its investment in APGCI to $1B and committed $2.1B to a national fund for infrastructure for gateways and border crossings. The government also unveiled a National Policy Framework for Strategic Gateways and Corridors to guide future investment and partnership activities. In September, the first container terminal at the Port of Prince Rupert officially opened with the first container ship from China expected in October.

In order for the Pacific Gateway to succeed, it must go beyond simply a Western Canadian strategy and truly become a national initiative. And while government policy may provide the general structure for such a Gateway, the public must be engaged to offer input and imagination so as to "bring the Gateway to life." Only then will the Gateway extend beyond just physical infrastructure, but also add value in terms of human resources, educational, environmental and cultural dimensions.