“Canada?” The response was always one of surprise when I revealed that, no, I’m not American. “Oh, we get lots of Canadians here. Nice folks.”
Nothing brings into focus more vividly what the rest of the world thinks about Canada than travelling abroad. Having spent the past 10 days in Ireland, I was once again reminded that when others think of Canada, they usually think good things. The problem is, beyond that, they tend not to think of us at all.
Mysteriously, Canada is a bit lost in a world of more interesting, frightening or dramatic places. (The one bizarre exception was Irish TV game shows: Canada shows up as either an answer or part of the question in an astonishing number of trivia questions, perhaps underscoring our global position: we’re trivial.)
I was in Dublin as a guest speaker at the summit of the Ireland-Canada Business Association, a group fostering greater business connections, investment and trade between the two countries. There was a packed house of enthusiastic Irish business people, but I couldn’t help but think how many more people would attend a summit focused on the U.S., Germany or even Australia.
Even though we’re a nation nine times larger than Ireland and a member of the G7, Canada still seems like an afterthought in Dublin.
What are the economic implications of having such an invisible profile? Is it a drawback being so vanilla in a world of 101 flavours? Or can there indeed be some benefit? After all, who wants the violence or political theatre that is lifting other countries’ profiles at the moment?
Certainly in terms of investment, Canada’s low profile is not a benefit. Global capital managers and investors want to make money, but they need to be aware of where the opportunities are. If the only thoughts they have of Canada is moose, mountains and maple syrup, they’ll overlook us.
Tourism is another enormous area of potential economic opportunity. The world’s middle class of consumers, particularly in China, are looking for interesting and unique travel experiences – but they also want security and safety. Canada checks a lot of those boxes.
Finally there’s the realm of culture, art and design. These overlap a bit with tourism, but taken together they really represent a broader economic driver called innovation. Countries that are innovative, creative and more risk-taking also tend to attract like-minded people.
In this very global age in which we live, the best and brightest can live anywhere. They choose to live in cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen, Austin and Melbourne for a reason – they are bursting with art and design.
I started to become despondent about Canada’s feeble global profile, drowning my frustration in pints of Guinness. But then, three separate media events on three consecutive days gave me hope for my home and native land.
First, Monocle magazine. The U.K.-based magazine is the must-read on global affairs, business, culture and design. Its November issue is focused on Canada. The cover story is titled: “Canada calling: Why it’s time to take a fresh look north. From Toronto to the high north, Monocle reports on a nation that’s flexing mind and muscle, re-engaging diplomatically and spreading its wings.” It’s almost as if Monocle believes it discovered a new country no one had heard of before.
Then, The Economist magazine’s Oct. 29th cover story: “Liberty Moves North: Canada’s Example to the World.” When the world’s most respected business and political affairs publication dedicates a cover to Canada, you know attention may finally be shifting to above the 49th parallel.
Finally last week, The Lonely Planet publication awarded Canada its Top Travel Destination of 2017. That alone could do more to boost tourism to Canada than the travel agency posters of Lake Louise.
Profile matters for the economy. A strong reputation as a great place for investment, tourism, innovation, culture and design is critical in a planet crowded with competition. We’ve got all of the ingredients, and it’s great that three major publications are finally recognizing us.
Still, Canadians cannot sit back and let business magazines and travel books do the heavy lifting for us. We need to promote ourselves more aggressively, or risk behind left behind.
This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on November 4, 2016.