Trudeau's World Economic Forum Message: Canada's Open For Business

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DAVOS, Switzerland — Canada's new Trudeau-era economy will be as much about brain power as it is fossil fuels, the prime minister told a high-powered economic forum Wednesday as he set out to rebrand the country on the world stage.

Justin Trudeau's keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos was clearly meant to differentiate him from predecessor Stephen Harper, who often used the meeting to tout Canada as a resource powerhouse.

Canada's natural resources remain a vital part of the economy — even as sliding oil prices take their toll on regions like Alberta — but there's more going on north of the 49th parallel than just hewing wood and drawing water, said Trudeau.

"My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources," he said. "I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness."

justin trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the World Economic Forum. (Phot: Michel Euler/AP Photo)

Trudeau pointed to the success of University of Waterloo graduates in Silicon Valley and the school's eclectic student population, calling diversity "the engine of invention."

And he framed Canada as a safe place to invest amid global economic uncertainty.

"We have a diverse and creative population, outstanding education and health care systems, and advanced infrastructure," he said. "We have social stability, financial stability and a government willing to invest in the future."

That message was repeated in meetings with some of the biggest businesses executives of the conference, including Microsoft CEO Natya Nadella, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. In an evening meeting with billionaire George Soros, the 85-year-old said he wasn't stressed about the Canadian economy, but played down Trudeau's optimism for the global economy, including Europe.

"My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness."

But not everyone was convinced.

Back home, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said he wanted to see more actions from the government rather than simply telling the world that "Canada is back."

Canadians, Mulcair said, know the country is in tough economic times, "families are suffering, there's increasing income inequality in our country. We've got to start dealing with that."

In Davos, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he wouldn't have used the same language as Trudeau when looking at the future of the Canadian economy. He called Canada's economy "resource-plus."

"We are a resource economy. Our biggest export is still energy and I do not see a path where that does not continue to be the case," he said.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Brian Tobin, who was in Davos as vice-chairman of BMO Capital Markets, said the country didn't need to "run away" from the resource sector. Commodities, he said, are cyclical and their value will rebound.

"It always does," he said.

But the downturn in the price of oil was an opportunity to push international investments in the Canadian manufacturing sector, research and development, and high-tech, Tobin said.

The Canadian economy could use the global help.

When he took office, Trudeau's advisers told him that global trends — social and economic — would affect the domestic economy despite Canada's solid policy foundation and a well-educated population. His briefing binder says those international trends "could be occurring at a faster pace and on a larger scale compared to previous eras."

Those trends included more disruptive technologies, the declining financial influence of the West, aging populations in Canada and other countries that will put pressure on health care and government spending.

Even the rise of the "sharing economy" has placed "increasing pressure on traditional policy tools like regulations," the briefing notes warn.

Copies of the documents were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

That disruption is part of the theme of this year's meeting in Davos, "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution," which is focused on how technology is changing the way companies and businesses operate.

Trudeau told the forum that governments need to spend, rather than pursue austerity measures.

"The fourth industrial revolution will not be successful unless it creates real opportunity for the billions who weren't able to join us here this week," Trudeau said in his speech that included references to the middle class.

"In Canada, we get this."

— With files from Kristy Kirkup in Montebello, Que.

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