Aiming to build new pathways for economic growth and expansion, Canada's western province of Alberta is looking to strengthen trade relations with Asia. Alberta's new Premier Alison Redford is leading this strategic push for the province to pursue increased export opportunities in Asia. The government of Alberta recognises that the province can no longer rely largely on the United States, which to this day remains its strongest export destination for its bountiful supply of oil and gas.
With trade offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul, Alberta seeks significant return traffic of investment, immigration and ingenuity from Asian nations. "I believe Alberta's future economic success will be closely tied to our ability to expand into new and burgeoning markets. Enhancing our presence and cultivating new opportunities in Asia are critical for our province," Redford says.
The priority that Alberta puts on developing relationships in Asia was a key agenda in Redford's electoral campaign for the leadership of the province's Progressive Conservative party. Redford achieved a historic win as Alberta's first female elected premier in October last year.
Spreading the vision of expanding Alberta's domestic outreach capacity for all of Canada, Redford also urged the nation's business leaders to explore more markets for the country's products. Barely a month after her party leadership victory, the premier outlined her agenda to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto, Ontario.
"If we truly want Canada to be a global energy leader, technology champion and environmental citizen, we have to reduce our market dependence on the United States," Redford says. "Our success is dependent on exports and the prosperity they bring, but US demand is declining. We must have more customers for our products."
In order to guarantee Canada's national prosperity, Redford believes that the country should be well positioned to supply Asia's energy requirements. "Asia's star is rising and it will dominate the 21st century," the premier says. "We can guarantee national prosperity for a long time to come by supplying Asian countries with the energy that they need. This must extend beyond oil and gas to include technology for all forms of energy - and its sustainable and efficient usage."
While Alberta - and Canada - could be a significant provider for Asia's energy demand, the northern nation of just more than 34 million people could in turn learn much about sustainability and efficient usage of its rich fossil fuel resources. It is the third richest in the world in oil reserves, behind only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
"Asian nations are moving aggressively in all these areas because they have no other way to meet demand. We would be smart to ally with them and learn from their experiences, even as we market our energy and technology," Redford says.
Strong leadership support for Asia agenda
In power and in position to move on her agenda, the premier kept as her lead minister Cal Dallas, a businessman from the prosperous, mid-sized community of Red Deer, which lies halfway between Alberta's capital city of Edmonton and the corporate headquarters city of Calgary.
Dallas's department was charged with delivering on the Asia Advisory Council Act, a piece of legislation that mandates the establishment of an expert panel of up to 10 members to guide Alberta's efforts to grow closer relationships with Asian nations. While committees and panels are not rare among Western governments, the creation of this one by legislation - with members to be appointed by Order in Council, or in effect by endorsement of the provincial cabinet - signifies its importance to the government of Alberta, Dallas says.
Reporting to the minister of international and intergovernmental relations is a new representative to Asia, Gary Mar, a former government minister and Alberta's head of mission in Washington, DC.
"The premier has clearly indicated that developing relationships in Asia is a priority of this government," Dallas says. "The legislation, Order in Council process, the amount of energy and resources that are being supplied to support the work of the advisory council clearly underline the priority that this government and the premier have put on developing our trade relationship and opportunities for all Albertans with respect to developments in Asia."
The impetus for Alberta to initiate this move was clear. While the US is the overwhelmingly dominant market for the Canadian province that borders Montana, being beholden to one market has significant implications. When Canadians saw approval for a proposed major Canada-to-US oil pipeline delayed and at risk earlier this year, it galvanised their embrace of Asia.
Hurdles have been thrown in the way of the Keystone XL pipeline system, a project which is intended to transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from Alberta to multiple destinations in the US.
"These hurdles reinforce why Alberta must focus on market diversification with a clear aim at Asia-Pacific," Redford says. The premier notes that she has shared her views with the office of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also a Conservative politician. "I have discussed this issue with the prime minister on many occasions and we continue to be in constant communication with him." Regardless of what happens on any single project or trade irritant between the neighbouring nations, Dallas says Alberta's Asia ambitions will remain.
"We know that Alberta is a global trader and we want to focus our efforts on areas that have the greatest opportunities for growth. Certainly Asia has been identified as the No 1 growth potential for Alberta," Dallas says.
Following her successful autumn leadership campaign, Redford reappointed Dallas to his post as minister of intergovernmental, international and aboriginal relations.
A few months later, the premier removed from this department the aboriginal relations role, which she set up as a separate ministry. It was an aberrant move, as Redford otherwise chose to consolidate government departments and trim the number of cabinet ministers.
The premier assigned Teresa Woo-Paw as associate minister to the more focused department. Woo-Paw is a Calgary Member of the Legislative Assembly and founder of Alberta-based organisations such as the Asian Heritage Foundation, the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary and the Calgary Chinese Community Services Association. Woo-Paw is widely expected to take a role with the Asia Advisory Council, although there was no confirmation yet at the time of writing.
Woo-Paw believes the council will be taken very seriously by the Alberta government.
"Its role is to provide expert advice and recommendations to the Minister with the focus on expanding our markets and providing support to Alberta exporters. It's all about increasing relationships with our Asia partners," she says.
Apart from doing business together, Woo-Paw also sees tremendous opportunities to expand relationships with Asia's research, cultural and education sectors. "It's about bridging between our province and Asian nations," she says.
The development of a solid working partnership involves pursuing trade, cultural and educational opportunities and sharing labour and technology. "It's a two-way relationship," Dallas says.
Building bridges is one thing that Alberta is taking on proactively. As the Alberta legislature's May 24 theme-setting speech from the throne says: "The people of this province have declared that they are not content to gaze inward and build walls. They want to look outward and build bridges. They seek to engage with the world around them and, through investment and innovation here at home, play a leading role in making our world a better place."
Fast Facts: Alberta and Asia
Asia is Alberta's second-largest export market worth almost HK$59 billion in 2010, while the mainland is one of Alberta's fastest-growing markets. Exports have increased by an average of approximately 20 per cent per year since 2001.
Among the 10 Canadian provinces and three territories, Alberta was the third-largest exporter to Asia last year, moving about 16 per cent of the nation's total exports to the region.
Key growth-potential exports from Alberta are world-class leading-edge technology and services, particularly in energy and environmental equipment and services, information and communications technology, bio and life sciences, value-added forest products and green building products.
Key growth-potential "imports" for the province from Asia include Foreign Direct Investment and immigrant workers to help address Alberta's labour shortage.