The challenge is to change Canada’s image, at home and abroad. Modern hewers of Canadian wood are actually designing products for the world.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 25, 2016.
OTTAWA—Brands are us. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a hit from the usual suspects for daring to suggest that Canada is more resourceful than resource-based.
But it is a song he should keep on singing if we are to staunch the bleeding from a slumping loonie and ongoing economic uncertainty.
To most of the world, we are but the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. Member of Parliament Joseph Elijah Armstrong first articulated that image in a speech on Sept. 8, 1891.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper extended the resource metaphor to position Canada as an oil and gas superpower. In doing so, he reinforced Canada’s longstanding image as a primary provider of energy and raw materials, to be processed elsewhere.
As Saudi Arabia flexes its muscle and depresses international oil prices, Canada’s perceived dependence on primary resource extraction has crippled our dollar.
Part of the solution lies in speeding up the timetable on infrastructure investments promised in the last election.
But we have a bigger job to do.
The challenge is to change Canada’s image, at home and abroad.
Modern hewers of Canadian wood are actually designing products for the world.
Former British prime minister’s Tony Blair launched a Cool Britannia campaign to reshape the stolid image of the stuffy Brit.
The plan was spawned by a report of the Design Council, a quasi-governmental body, founded by Royal Charter. The council had commissioned a study entitled, “New Brand for a New Britain.” It focused on the growing importance of creative industries to the United Kingdom—citing design, advertising, media, marketing, and the arts as huge employment creators.
That report was reinforced by a Labour-affiliated think tank study entitled, “Britain ™; renewing our identity.”
The idea of Britain as trademark was novel and timely.
The Labour government launched a domestic and international effort to reinforce the importance of design to the British economy. The British Foreign Office set up an advisory committee responsible for specific branding goals and a mandate to change Britain’s image around the world.
The committee was tasked to review the methods and tools available to do this; and to ensure that public and private sectors worked together on redesign efforts.
The committee also modernized how the Foreign Office communicated with the public.
Trudeau’s speech at Davos hit the right notes. He underscored the value of resourcefulness over resource extraction. He focused on the diversity of Canada’s workforce, citing immigration as a driver of innovation.
As an example, he referenced the demographic profile of University of Waterloo graduate engineering students. Half of them hail from other countries around the globe.
Trudeau also used the World Economic Forum to make a connection with some of the great innovators of this century, the creators of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.
The Prime Minister will have a much tougher time aligning the machinery of government with this new vision for Canada.
British rebranding took more than a decade, with public and private sectors working together to reinforce the notion of a new economy based on innovation and design.
Canada does not even have a national equivalent of the Design Council. There are some promising local examples of how design and the economy can intersect.
Toronto’s Design Industry Advisory Committee has only been around for 15 years, but it already exerts significant influence on city policies and branding.
According to DIAC, there are 40,000 design professionals working in Ontario. That represents a huge pool of talent ready to rebrand a province with a reputation for stodginess.
According to Statistics Canada data (no longer collected), in 2007 the number of industrial design jobs had been growing at a rate of seven per cent a year for more than a decade.
Other design sectors have experienced similar growth, with little government recognition. Quebec is the only province with a design tax incentive.
An auto or oil bailout is a political imperative when thousands of high-paying jobs are at stake. But focusing public brainpower on fixing past mistakes is a recipe for failure.
If Mark Zuckerberg had relied on government to launch Facebook, he never would have gotten beyond the first page.
Trudeau’s view of the new Canada is a good start. Cool Britannia was more than a decade in the making. But reorienting government policy to support the creative economy is imperative.
The Prime Minister has his work cut out for him.
Canada is hot!
In these sub-zero days, that could be novel branding.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.