Canadian economy saunters when it could lope

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Thu Sep 09 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Canada has come through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression remarkably well — better than any other industrial nation in the world.

The two biggest challenges facing the country now are to solve the structural problems that constrained our growth before the 2008-2009 downturn and to buttress our economy, to the extent possible, against the headwinds coming from the U.S.

Wiping out the $49 billion federal deficit by 2015 won’t achieve either of those goals.

The first imperative is resisting the urge to panic every time there’s a tremor in the American economy. Although Canada can’t insulate itself from developments south of the border, it can continue to draw on the strengths that contributed to its early recovery.

The second essential is to broaden those strengths. A sustainable recovery requires full employment, a willingness to innovate and an ability to think beyond the next budget or foreign takeover.

Although Canada doesn’t need an extension of the short-term infrastructure stimulus announced in 2009, it does need to provide unemployed and underemployed workers with continued access to the training they need to earn a decent income.

For Ontario, that means extending the Second Career program for as long as necessary to accommodate the backlog of unemployed workers who have applied for the financial help — a task made more onerous and more urgent by the federal government’s impending cut-off of the additional five weeks of jobless benefits it offered long-tenured workers last year.

Finance Minster Dwight Duncan announced in his March budget that the province would help an additional 30,000 unemployed workers get training over the next two years. But the 600,000 Ontarians still seeking work and the thousands waiting in menial jobs fear the program will end before their application is accepted.

It is critical, as well, to ensure local school boards don’t skimp on adult education. A high-school diploma, which 13 per cent of Ontarians never obtained, is mandatory for almost any accredited vocation program.

Although job training is a provincial responsibility, Ottawa used its capacity as manager of Canada’s employment insurance program to invest in retraining for the past two years. Ending that modest component of its 2009 stimulus plan as scheduled next March would kill the hopes of millions.

On the trade front, Ottawa must work faster to reduce Canada’s dependence on the once-insatiable U.S market. Weighed down by a $1.3 trillion government deficit and a debt that is expected to double over the next five years, it won’t be importing anything but necessities in the foreseeable future.

Peter Van Loan, minister of trade, can’t spend enough time in China, India and Brazil in the months ahead. Those are the countries where Canada will reap lasting gains from staking out new markets.

Nor can the Conservatives afford to ignore climate change. The evidence of upheaval — especially in Canada’s North — is irrefutable. And the rest of the world, despite its hunger for a safe source of oil and gas, won’t tolerate an intensification of Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The two biggest factors hampering effective action are the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Ottawa and the Prime Minister’s short-term, go-it-alone focus. If Stephen Harper would stop picking needless fights, the nation would have a chance to pull together.

Regardless of the toxic environment in Ottawa, Canada will outperform its overextended peers. Blessed with an abundance of the commodities the world wants; a highly educated labour force; a strong financial sector; a well-designed, but overburdened, network of roads and urban amenities; and a durable, though fraying, set of safety nets, it doesn’t have to embrace the possibilities of global restructuring.

But with a modicum of civility and an ounce of ambition, it could.

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