Trade missions are terrific for political optics, for the sense that our local businesses are scoring big internationally and for asserting that our government is there to hold our hands as more comes our way.
No matter the government’s political stripe, no matter if it is a federal or provincial mission, they strike the same narrative: A market awaits us if we lean in, so we are heading over to do the deals, and we will return as fast friends of foreign partners. Handshakes, pats on the back, ceremonial pictures abound.
This is no different with the mission taking place in Asia with Premier David Eby and cabinet ministers Brenda Bailey, Josie Osborne and Jagrup Brar as they trek through Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore. The world’s fastest-growing economic region seems open for our business.
But there is at times a less flattering backstory to the public-facing political portrait that doesn’t quite paint the pretty picture.
A little more than three years ago, in a little-noticed move, British Columbia killed its program of trade representatives in the region the Eby entourage is touring. It shut all eight offices and claimed, evidence to the contrary, that rolling our representation into Canadian embassies would better serve our interests.
Of course, Canadian embassies had been doing this all along for B.C., as they had for other provinces, so there was nothing to be gained from the move. And, of course, our trade relationship with Asia is far more pronounced and profound than those of other provinces. If any province ought to have representation, it’s us.
I wrote about these confounding closures in 2020. It still baffles me why common sense didn’t intervene to reverse course.
What the closure announcement glossed over were studies in 2018 demonstrating these small trade shops delivered results that ought to have shamed anyone from cutting them: $450 million in export deals, nearly $1.4 billion in investment and more than 4,600 jobs back home. Trade representatives were the unsung stars.
In discussing the offices as part of the examination of the 2019 budget estimates, then-minister Bruce Ralston, a long-time critic of the offices when in Opposition, had to acknowledge that the 216 export deals facilitated in the previous year had exceeded the target of 150.
We may never know why he chose to shutter what was a small investment for a large return – the province maintains the decision was sound – but the move left the province no direct, specific apparatus in the region our premier claims is a priority to lessen the links to China.
What the move also left was an opportunity for Alberta to pounce. We let go our experienced hands and the newly created Invest Alberta was only too willing to hire them in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Advantage Alberta are apt watchwords, after all.
It particularly left a mess for the former South Korea office managing director, Luke Shim, who told me last week that three years hence he remains personally out of pocket about $225,000 he needed to find on short notice to wind down the operation, including its rents ($15,000 monthly), a restoration fee of the property ($60,000) and salaries and benefits owed to staff ($100,000). The government is ghosting him these days.
His staff were recruited for experience in industries like investment, mining, gas, information and communications, and life sciences, and from large firms like Hyundai, Samsung and LG. They were replaced by fewer and generally junior embassy staff.
The province settled financially with other representatives in China and Indonesia only recently as their trials neared. Shim surmises he would need to spend at least $100,000 on legal fees to try to get the money back. He already drained his bank account and wishes to spend no more. “I didn’t have the resources” to fight for the funds, he said.
In Korea, there are employment laws that protect anyone working for a company; under the BC Liberal government, the province made these representatives contractors, so they could fire everyone. (This was a surprise to the representatives at the time, I recall in conversations with them). Shim has moved on to work on a blockchain business.
Mainly, Shim checked in to let British Columbia’s Asian business community in particular know that as our ministers traipse around the territory, there is less than meets the eye in the region as support.
I suppose the faraway quotes and pictures will make us feel better short-term. But better yet long-term would be reprising the representation.
Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and executive editor of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.