Province grapples with ongoing pandemic emergency

Q&A: COVID crisis, shifting export landscape are twin challenges for cabinet ministers

George Chow, B.C. Minister of State for Trade (left); Ravi Kahlon, B.C. Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation  | BIV

As part of the 38th annual BC Export Awards, two British Columbia cabinet ministers discussed the export market environment and some of the strategies in responding to the pandemic and planning for the post-pandemic world. BIV publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe interviewed Ravi Kahlon, the minister for jobs, economic recovery and innovation, and George Chow, the minister of state for trade. The following is an excerpt of the discussion, edited for space and clarity.

The pandemic changed a lot of things for all of us in the world. I want to know what you feel it has changed around the export strategy for the province.

George Chow, B.C. Minister of State for Trade: I think it will change our strategy going forward. But we also changed our strategy in how we help businesses do virtual online assistance and help business to navigate provincial and federal help for the COVID strategies that both governments have put out. And this is what we are primarily focused on. And we also will be focusing on a trade diversification strategy, because now the world is going to be different.

What were the early priorities in stabilizing and supporting the economy?

Ravi Kahlon, B.C. Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation: Well, we’re fortunate here in B.C. I know that a lot of businesses are still struggling. And it’s difficult. I mean, my family ran a restaurant for a decade over here, and we didn’t have to deal with pandemic; it was hard enough. And so I can appreciate how hard it is for folks that are trying to adjust their entire business practices to continue to operate.… And so the first thing we did was sit down with folks from hospitality from the tourism sector and say, ‘OK, here is the programming we have, what would you like to do to make this more accessible to your members?’

We are about a year into this now, and I’d like to get an assessment from you of the strengths and the challenges for the export environment for British Columbia businesses.

Chow: I think the main challenge for us for the export environment is basically the world economy. It’s just not recovering yet. But other than that, I think everything is still going well, I think our exports in agri-food, seafood and some of the biosciences are doing well.

What are the early signals you think British Columbia is getting out of President Joe Biden and his administration about the relationships that we’ll have as British Columbians in that market?

Chow: I think it’s very important that we get our message across that British Columbia is a good trading partner for the U.S. and I want to make sure that our products have good access to the mass market in a co-operative manner rather than fighting each other.

The recovery has to be there for the export sector. What are the specific needs that you’re seeing here in the pandemic?

Kahlon: We have a very resilient economy here in B.C., and even though we haven’t been able to do some of the things that we need to do, we continue to see huge opportunities. You know, I was just reading a piece on Biden and what it means for the [relationship between the] new president and B.C., and I think that there’s a double-edged sword. A part of me is a little worried about the Buy America piece … but I’m also looking forward to some opportunities. You know, they have a very focused agenda on the clean economy and addressing climate change. And we produce the most low-carbon products in the world.

Will that be around budget time or when would that be?

Kahlon: We’re not out of this pandemic now, and so our focus will be continuing to support the economy and providing stability during this time. I think we’ll start seeing a little bit of discussion about the restart there. But I think from now to probably the fall is where we’re going to be doing a lot of consultation to get an understanding of what does the future economy look like. And then we’ll be rolling out some of the critical pieces from there.

As the government consults the industry and takes a look at what the opportunities are on all of this, are you approaching this with any new thinking about how government needs to support exporters?

Chow: Well, of course, we have our existing programming. For example, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s Trade Accelerator Program is a great program whereby we select a company already exporting but could use a bit of more advanced strategy, and that’s what we’re doing. And we also have the Export Navigator Program. And I think going forward, I really think that we need to have a thorough conversation with our stakeholders as to what our B.C. economy is like and what it will look like going forward in five years, 10 years tops, and how do we want to do business. And how do we want to drive our economy? My mandate letters [ask me] to come up with the trade diversification strategy, and we’re working on a plan right now that will be coming forward.

What are the signals that you’re seeing at the moment out of China?

Chow: We’re changing the way we’re doing business in Asia. Before contractors actually worked for the British Columbia government. We’re changing that to [an employee] model. And these employees will be stationed at our embassy and consulate offices and working with the trade commissioner. I think we would actually get better return on the money we spent trying to get my trade. We should be moving away from the [Chinese] coastal city into the interior because there is actually more opportunity there in terms of housing.

Where do you see the biggest openings for British Columbia in terms of enhancing its trade relationships with other countries and regions of the world?

Chow: I think we should be looking at some of the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] nations such as Vietnam …, Indonesia, as well as the Philippines. Those are the markets that we should be exploring. And I think we will be putting some focus on that and other partners as well, like Japan … Taiwan and India. We should be looking at all these nations and not really just focus on a handful. I think we’re a middle economy. So I think with our reputation in the world, we could actually sell to these perfectly economy much better than we sell to a bigger economy.

Can you foresee some timelines here for certain elements of our recovery?

Kahlon: The budget will be an important piece of setting the frame of where we’re going to go. But we’re going to need to ensure that we focus on providing the support that people and businesses need right now because we’re not out of the pandemic. But we’re going to continue to listen and learn and engage with folks in communities, and the focus will be putting an economic framework probably in the fall to lay out where we’re going to go. •