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Sat, 20 Apr 2013 14:15:00 GMT | By Deirdre McMurdy, MSN Money

What’s holding Canada back

Canada’s weak economic outlook is a function of our culture.


Deirdre McMurdy

A strong case can be made for the view that personality is fate.

That is every bit as true of nations as it is for individuals. After all, personality informs choices, priorities, responses to challenges. And as every self-help book you’ve ever guzzled always reminds you, it’s not what happens to you in this life, it’s how you react to what happens to you.

This brings us to a discussion about Canada’s personality and the impact it’s having on our economic fortunes which — in case you’ve missed it — are a little wobbly these days.

By now, we’ve all become familiar with a worrisome unemployment rate: it clocked in at 7.2 per cent in March, up from seven per cent a month earlier.

We’re equally familiar with all the commentary reflecting on the chronic issue of lagging Canadian productivity, the exhortations to innovate, and the exhortations to spend rather than squat on corporate capital reserves.

In a recent report by Deloitte Canada, Bill Currie, the firm’s vice-chairman and co-author of the paper, offered the unflattering assessment that Canadians are “fat and happy,” comfortable with the status quo and reluctant to take the risks required to (yes, for the umpteenth time) be competitive in global markets.

Certainly Canada’s economic outlook isn’t particularly encouraging: According to the International Monetary Fund, Canadian growth rates will be among the slowest in the world because of cooling housing markets and deficit-driven fiscal restraint.

The IMF cut its outlook to 1.5 per cent growth, from 2.0 per cent last fall, the most anemic performance since 2009. And if that’s not enough indifferent news, soft commodity prices could make things even more dismal.

None of this is particularly new information — neither is the fact that we’re living through a period of profound and constant change. But what’s worth considering is Canada’s response — or lack of it.

One place to start is with the fact that during periods of dislocation, people, companies and countries tend to respond with something Chrystia Freeland, author of the award-winning book, Plutocrats, calls “creative inertia.”

This entails doing what you’ve always done — just doing more of it, even though “what works in ordinary times is a recipe for disaster in revolutionary times.” Those who succeed in the future will be those who grasp — and respond to — the reality that “revolution is the new global status quo.”

Take all that, then factor in Canada’s history and culture of modesty, compromise, and most prevalently, risk aversion.

The consensus — and evidence — seems to show that Canada lacks the stomach and the entrepreneurial spirit for confronting risk and uncertainty head-on: our small businesses rank fifth among their counterparts in industrialized countries for research and development. Our large firms rank ninth.

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