By Carlo Dade
In the Winnipeg Free Press

May 2, 2016

More than 600 business from around the globe will soon converge on Winnipeg for the biannual Centrallia business summit. With those businesses come opportunity and, in some ways, a second chance for the country.

It is a chance for Canada to turn around some bad news stories on the trade front.

In recent years, Canada has been falling in global rankings on important measures such as trade intensity. It has seen its competitors leap ahead on signing trade agreements, especially in Asia, where Canada has only one trade pact (Korea) and no real, near-term prospects for more.

To reverse these trends, Canadians have been looking to the future — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pending 12-nation pact around the Pacific Rim; the emergence from hibernation of a signed agreement with the EU; and recent signs of a willingness to consider opening negotiations with China.

So much attention has been focused on the future, however, that we sometimes overlook the opportunities we already have.

And this is what will be on display in Winnipeg at the end of this month.

This year’s edition of Centrallia will focus on opportunities in the Arctic and the Americas. Both are areas of special expertise and connection for Canada.

While the case for the Arctic is obvious, the case for the Americas is one most Canadians don’t fully understand.

Unlike Asia, Canada already has trade agreements in the Americas. These run in a line down the Pacific Coast of the hemisphere and take in almost all of the fastest-growing, most stable and open economies. From Mexico through Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Chile, Canadian businesses have privileged entrées and warm welcomes in countries with growing middle classes.

Data from the World Bank show Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Panama have higher per capita GDP than China does. Though the middle class is growing rapidly in Asia, it is further advanced in Latin America, and especially in countries with which Canada has trade agreements.

All of the countries that Canada has agreements with in this hemisphere also rank in the top third of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. On that score, they are also well ahead of China.

This does not mean Canada should take its attention and efforts away from trying to gain entry to China. It does, however, suggest that while we are waiting for that to happen, or waiting for the TPP and the trade agreement with Europe to get to parliament, we may want to look at the easier opportunities sitting on our doorstep.

Those opportunities will not only be on full display at the Centrallia event, but will also be presented in a new light.

A unique innovation of this year’s event is the focus on introducing opportunities through the lens of trade blocs, as opposed to the old-fashioned and hopelessly out of date format of presenting individual countries.

The reality of global trade today is that countries make products together. Just as the three NAFTA partner countries build cars, buses and produce food together, so do other groups of countries integrate their economic activities. Centrallia will focus on opportunities in the three most important trade blocs in this hemisphere: the NAFTA; the Pacific Alliance (known as the NAFTA of the south) with Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Chile; and the South American Common Market, or Mercosur, with Brazil, Argentina and the rest of South America.

Opportunities for business lie in how these countries work together, link their economies and expedite the movement of goods, products, inputs and people within their versions of NAFTA.

Businesses looking for immediate opportunities and a way to understand the world of trade that matches the new global reality should be in Winnipeg at the end of this month.

Carlo Dade is the director of the Centre for Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation.