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Yuen Pau Woo: Within 10 years, Vancouver will be a majority “Asian” city

Yuen Pau Woo.

Yuen Pau Woo on Canada’s connection to Asia: ‘We have to figure out our energy relationship’


Special to The Globe and Mail


Last updated 

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with taking our place in the world.

Yuen Pau Woo, former president and chief executive officer of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, was interviewed Sept. 4 by Monica Pohlmann, a consultant with Reos Partners.


Pohlmann: What keeps you up at night about what’s going on in Canada?

Woo: Complacency. Canada has been blessed with numerous natural endowments and political and institutional assets. But we are slipping on many indices and our position in the world could deteriorate sharply. The usual story for why Canada didn’t fall into a more severe recession in 2008 is that we have strong banks and a good financial regulatory system – for example, that we didn’t have a subprime mortgage problem like the U.S. That’s all true. But we overlook the fact that China saved Canada from a more severe recession. If you look at what kept growth from falling even further between 2008 and 2011, the answer is Chinese demand. Exports from Canada to China doubled between 2008 and 2013. Exports from Canada to the rest of the world, including to the U.S., still have not caught up to the levels they were in 2007.

Pohlmann: If you could ask a clairvoyant about the future of Canada, what would you ask?

Woo: As the most Asian city outside of Asia, how will Vancouver evolve? About 45 per cent of the population of the census metropolitan area of Vancouver today is of Asian ethnic descent. Within 10 years, Vancouver will be a majority “Asian” city. Will that lead to a shift in terms of trade, business and popular culture? Will Vancouver plug into the dynamism (and challenges) of contemporary Asia and serve as a connector across the Pacific, or will Vancouver settle into a more typical North American trajectory – becoming a city with lots of Asian people, but one that does not have deep commercial and cultural ties with Asia? A lot of people say to me, “I’m okay with immigrants, as long as they become Canadian.” Indeed, immigrant integration is a very important issue and one that we have to constantly work on. But what is the definition of being Canadian? Is it fixed? Can newcomers over time shape what being a Canadian means? The answer surely is yes, but how will it happen, and what will be the trade-offs? To take a simple example, shouldn’t there be more teaching of Asian languages in Vancouver schools when so much of the population is of Asian descent?

Pohlmann: What important decisions do we have to make?

Woo: We have to figure out our energy relationship with Asia. Asia is investing massively in renewables, but in the meantime, those countries are going to need to get oil and gas from somewhere. They would much rather get it from Canada than from the Persian Gulf. Asian countries understand our situation very well: We have stranded assets that are worth very little unless these assets can make it to market, which today increasingly means Asia rather than the United States. From an Asian perspective, their need for a secure source of energy supply is a perfect match for our need to have security of demand. They see it as a marriage made in heaven and cannot understand why we have so much difficulty making it happen. If we are, in fact, unable to make trans-Pacific energy trade a reality, our Asian friends are naturally going to wonder: “Well, what can you make happen?” And that will, in turn, affect the broader Canada-Asia relationship.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

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