Trade Minister Fast talks shop with North Van businesses
Just one day after Victoria announced a belt-tightening budget for B.C., Ottawa was in town to hear suggestions from local businesses on how to improve international trade opportunities, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
Hosted by the North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, a room of 30 people — representing, amongst others, the commodities, tourism and education industries — gathered at the Pinnacle Hotel to speak with Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade and the Asia-Pacific Gateway.
The minister's remarks, after introductions from both chamber chairman Mike Boehm and North Van MP Andrew Saxton, were brief. The meeting, Fast said, was "above all" scheduled "to listen to you." And listen he did.
Chief amongst the topics raised: the importance of preserving and improving rail infrastructure, establishing a strong Canadian brand to entice both tourists and foreign investment and crafting an international education strategy that will expedite student visas and promote careers in trades.
In an interview with The Outlook after the meeting, Tony Nardi, vice-president of logistics and community at Neptune Terminals, reiterated the tips he offered to the minister, in particular the need to "strike a balance" between the spread of urban development and the expansion of industry. Those two camps — with those desires — can find themselves at odds when sharing finite real estate.
"There's a lot of talk about port expansion, and as an industry we pay living-wage salaries but it all falls down if you can't protect rail corridors," said Nardi, noting the potential re-design of the Low Level Road, which includes an expansion of rail facilities, is but one example of that issue. The aging Fraser River Railroad Bridge is another.
"So what's happened, and it hasn't been a conscious thing, is that when development occurs it can be in conflict with residents. And it's a worry. So we need to look at both renewing and maintaining our infrastructure but it's also worth working hard to make sure everyone can co-exist," Nardi added.
On the branding front, Grouse Mountain and Whistler Water president Stuart McLaughlin discussed the importance of nurturing Canadian brands and establishing a cohesive brand identity for the country itself. For the tourism industry, McLaughlin said, such a plan would entice visitors. Once here, those visits may lead to investment.
"Part of my portfolio is re-branding Canada," Fast answered.
"Canada is very well-liked. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling about Canada. But what we haven't done is capitalize on that. We hope branding can do that."
And just 48 hours from taking part in a delegation to city council about a potential satellite Capilano University campus on the waterfront, Catherine Vertesi, Cap U's vice-president for international external relations and new initiatives, spoke of two problems faced by post-secondary institutions when attracting and educating foreign students: slow visa processing in some countries and the lack of an international student strategy that promotes work in the Canadian trade sector.
Canada, Vertesi stressed, has become a desired place for foreign students to study. And the various governments of the last two decades have each played a role in making it so. But a diversified international student body is needed and there are countries whose students aren't being tapped by local schools because visa-processing officers aren't readily available to them.
For instance, the only place for students from Kazakhstan to obtain visas is Moscow. Yet, the Kazakhstani government is covering the tab for those who wish to study oil and gas-related courses abroad.
"In those cases it may take weeks and weeks for a student to get an answer," Vertesi told The Outlook, in a phone interview.
"And these are fully-funded students."
After enrollment, Vertesi believes students will benefit from information highlighting careers in trades, a plan not currently available. There's a tendency for parents who pay for their children to study abroad — a $100,000 investment, she said — to expect the pursuit of law, medicine or business degrees by their kids. Trades, however, are in demand here and promoting those jobs will prove beneficial not only to schools but to the country as well.
"We have needs for blue-collar workers," she said.
"There needs to be a strategy for that."
For more news on Minster Fast's visit to North Vancouver, read Outlook reporter Todd Coyne's story "Brooksbank rail expansion on track."