With free trade agreements recently negotiated with the European Union and South Korea, the time is ripe for Alberta businesses to look overseas.
That was the message delivered by Erin O’Toole, Canada’s parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade, during a meeting with business owners and economic development officials in Blackfalds on Thursday.
“We’re trying to get small to medium-sized exporters thinking about these new markets and not just relying on the U.S.,” O’Toole told reporters after the closed-door gathering with about a dozen people, including Wetaskiwin MP Blaine Calkins.
The MP for Durham, Ont., pointed out that the Harper government has struck free trade deals that involve nearly 40 countries.
“We want to make sure that these exporters and employers are talking about these opportunities now, so they can hit the ground running.”
With its relatively small population, Canada is dependent on foreign markets, said O’Toole.
“One in five jobs in Canada right now is directly attributable to trade.”
O’Toole and Calkins are scheduled to take part in a similar meeting in Ponoka this evening, with labour challenges and the recently announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program to be the theme.
But labour issues also crept into Thursday’s discussions, confirmed the two Conservative MPs.
“We’re back to where we were in 2006-2007, where we had a really hot economy here before the recession came in,” said Calkins.
“We’re back to those kinds of full employment now.”
He said he hears repeatedly about businesses that are losing opportunities for growth because they can’t find staff.
“They’re turning down business because they don’t have enough people working for them.”
O’Toole said it’s apparent to him that the federal government has to be mindful of Alberta’s unique needs when it develops programs related to issues like temporary foreign workers and infrastructure.
“That was a key take-back for me, in terms of providing some flexibility in areas of the country that are driving our economy.
“So we have to have an approach to the (temporary foreign worker) program that recognizes the differences.”
O’Toole said he regularly consults with Canadian businesses and their representatives to ensure opportunities like the opening of new trade markets aren’t overlooked.
The resulting feedback also helps to smooth hurdles that could interfere with business, he added.
“We don’t want to throw barriers in front of people that are already exporting or trying to expand exports.”