Ottawa unlikely to lean more on B.C. on foreign policy issues post-election, experts say

Given B.C.’s status as holding Western Canada’s largest concentration of Liberals seats after the Tories dominated the West in the recent federal elections, can the province expect to be leaned upon by Ottawa after the Liberal minority victory - especially on issues such as foreign trade policy?

It isn’t likely, observers said, noting that trade initiatives have actually been an area historically that spurs cooperation from both the political left and right - and issues on how to pursue export opportunities in Asia, Europe and the Americas itself can provide prime minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government to appease places like Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“Now, all eyes are on Western Canada in terms of how does the federal government pivot and not alienate these provinces, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan,” said Omar Allam, founder and CEO of the Allam Advisory Group and a former senior consultant with the World Bank. “Many of the provinces where the Liberals lost ground, if you look at the statistics, the majority of these economies are dependent on trade and exports of goods and services… Saskatchewan exports just under 70% of what it produces to countries around the world. So naturally, the federal government’s trade policy will have to be coordinated with the provinces. You need to be aligned.”

Allam called the minority government result the perfect opportunity for Ottawa to formulate a comprehensive policy towards different foreign markets - a process that involves closely deciphering the key exports Canada can grow abroad, the markets that would buy these products, and how Ottawa can facilitate the connections in each of those commodity’s specific cases. That would need the involvement of the provinces and other local players - a chance for Ottawa to display “creative commercial and economic diplomacy” within its own borders.

“The question is, how does the federal government rally and support provincial export interests in key markets like the U.S., China, Japan and the EU?” Allam said, adding it may be more effective to reach across party lines directly to other western provinces on their areas of need rather than relying on a potential ideological ally in B.C.

Carlo Dade, director of the Trade & Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation, said it’s more likely that Ottawa leans on international trade diversification minister Jim Carr - who, after the most recent election, was left as the only Liberal MP from Western Canada outside of B.C, winning his riding in Winnipeg South Centre. Dade, however, noted the degree Ottawa will lean on B.C. depends on how many cabinet seats would now go to B.C. MPs.

“There are usually two motivators for provincial cooperation, and one is foreign trade targets,” Dade said. “This is an area where Ottawa can offer the provinces an olive branch.” 

Dade noted, however, that the more concerning fact facing Ottawa in the post-election foreign policy file is the lack of something comprehensive (as suggested by Allam). Without it, the addition of a minority government can further muddy the picture, since the NDP - widely expected to be the major support needed to keep the Liberals in power in parliament - has also displayed a transactional, case-by-case approach on foreign policy.

“We tend to make it up as we go along. There are no hints of a comprehensive Asia policy, let along a China policy, an India policy, etc,” Dade said. “I’d love to be proven wrong, but it looks like Canada will continue to look at what to do on an issue-by-issue basis.”

Yves Tiberghien, director emeritus at UBC’s Institute of Asia Research, agreed that Ottawa’s approach to markets globally will likely not see a sudden shift, even in a minority-government environment.

“I think we would only have gradual change, not massive change,” he said. “The biggest change… would probably on the climate-change side, but the NDP focus is mostly on the domestic side - on social justice issues and wealth redistribution for low-income people. S