Seize the Moment, Build the Brand: Asian, Canadian Business Leaders Gather in Vancouver

When Asia’s top business leaders joined their Canadian counterparts in Vancouver one year ago for the inaugural meeting of the Asia Business Leaders Advisory Council (ABLAC), the world by comparison was a normalized and familiar place. Twelve months later and that world is very different indeed: a wave of isolationist, nationalistic rhetoric has since swept the globe, sending a chill through legacy alliances and trusted relationships.

For Canada this geostrategic shudder presents all manner of opportunities, particularly in the context of an increased desire for global protectionism. If ever there was a time to deepen our own engagement with the fast-growing economies of the Asia Pacific. That time is now. In fact, Canada is already receiving renewed attention for its social and economic openness, transparent business culture, and good governance. We’ve got the winning formula; it’s now a matter of successfully promoting it. 

And that will be the focus of today’s ABLAC 2017 meeting, where 28 business and government leaders from a broad range of sectors across the Asia Pacific will participate in an open and candid dialogue with their business peers, government colleagues, and other policy-makers. The overarching theme of their discussions will be an exploration of how Canada can further define its unique brand and “seize the moment” for its own economic and political advantage.

While Canada has an enviable reputation globally for its natural beauty, abundant resources, highly-skilled and multicultural workforce, strong political traditions, and sound institutions, what I heard loud and clear from ABLAC 2016 is that when it comes to a global brand, Canada is lagging behind many other Western countries. Council members noted that our national brand is inconsistent and neutral at best, and that many potential partners in the Asia Pacific regard Canada as little more than a brand branch office of the U.S.

Certainly this is an alarming revelation, but also a clarion call to Canadian businesses and governments that a rebranding exercise is timely and critical. Key to this exercise will be positioning Canada as an innovation hub connected to similar innovation ecosystems throughout the Asia Pacific. We can accomplish this reboot by engaging in three interrelated initiatives: connectivity, talent, and competence.

Canada borders the world’s largest economy, and Vancouver is recognized as a global hub with a world-class airport and seaport providing valuable access to international markets. We could do more to bolster our trade infrastructure and ease the flow of products through our transportation bottlenecks, but it is equally important that we explore collaborative opportunities with new and existing partners in the Asia Pacific. By connecting through global centres of excellence in research, technology and innovation, we can play a meaningful and relevant role in contemporary Asia while simultaneously catalyzing entrepreneurship on both sides of the relationship.

Critical to a rebranding of Canada as a global innovation hub is ensuring two-way talent mobility with Asia, including ways to make it easier for students to study and work on both sides of the Pacific. Improved talent mobility was a sentiment echoed in the latest round of recommendations from Canada’s new Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which advised Ottawa to streamline immigration processes to allow companies to bring in "top talent" from abroad.

The research and surveys conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada over the past decade indicate that there is a critical knowledge gap among Canadians regarding countries in Asia, and that few Canadians have been exposed to Asia or Asian business culture. To truly position Canada as an innovation hub in lockstep with partners in the Asia Pacific, we must provide Canadians with the Asia-related skills and competence that will set them apart as truly global citizens prepared to engage with the region in a relevant and lasting way.

There are vast and growing opportunities for Canada in the Asia Pacific, but they are not going to come to us naturally or by accident. If we are truly committed to attracting Asian interest, investment and collaboration then we must be committed to a unified, distinctive and attractive national brand. And to seizing our moment.

This piece was first published in The Vancouver Sun on March 13, 2017.