Edmonton

Alberta trade offices seek outside help in ramping up U.S. presence

Alberta is looking for outside help with government and public relations as the province embarks on its largest expansion of U.S. trade offices since first appointing a representative to Washington in 2004.

85 per cent of Alberta exports go to United States

Former MP James Rajotte was appointed Alberta's senior representative to Washington in April 2020. (CBC )

Alberta is looking for outside help with government and public relations as the province embarks on its largest expansion of U.S. trade offices since first appointing a representative to Washington in 2004.

Last month, the province announced it will open trade offices in Seattle, Denver and Chicago in 2022, adding to the existing offices in Houston and Washington. 

The two requests for proposals, posted just before Christmas, seeks a third party to help create and execute plans for engaging with the federal administration, Congress and state governments, and getting Alberta coverage in the national and regional U.S. media.

The successful parties will be contracted for two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension. 

James Rajotte, a former Edmonton-area Conservative MP named Alberta's senior representative to Washington in 2020, will be responsible for the offices, including an existing one in Mexico City. 

Rajotte says 85 per cent of Alberta's exports go to the U.S. so it's important to have ears on the ground for opportunities and issues. 

"You just simply have to be present," he said in an interview with CBC News." Everybody is trying to get the attention of policymakers south of the border, so you have to allocate sustained dedicated resources in order to do so."

Alberta exports to the U.S. totalled $77.5 billion in 2020, meaning the effort is worth it, Rajotte said. 

"Because of the size of the trade, if we can increase that even by a percentage or two, that's a massive amount of benefit to us here in Alberta." 

The cost of opening the new trade offices is estimated at $2.3 million. A spokesperson for Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer said the money is coming from the ministry's existing budget. 

Distrust dynamic

Critics question the value of a provincial government having a presence in Washington D.C. 

Former Progressive Conservative minister Murray Smith was Alberta's first senior trade representative to Washington, serving from 2004 to 2007. Smith was succeeded by Gary Mar, another former cabinet minister, and former Conservative MP Rob Merrifield. Former diplomat Gitane da Silva headed up the office when the NDP were in government. 

Greg Anderson is a political science professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in U.S.-Canada relations, international trade and the North American political economy. 

Anderson said it's valuable for a provincial government to have eyes and ears on the ground, particularly in the trade offices outside of Washington where staff can play close attention to issues arising in state legislatures and the region. But, he argued, it is difficult to quantify how much trade is generated solely by adding more offices and staff. 

As for the Washington office, Anderson said, lawmakers will listen politely while meeting with an Alberta representative but will be unlikely to do anything that might ruffle feathers in Ottawa. 

Alberta's trade offices aren't as independent as the province makes them out to be as they are always located inside a Canadian consulate or embassy where provincial officials work closely with their federal counterparts, Anderson said.

"These offices abroad are depicted as Alberta defending its interests. And there's always a kind of federal conflict ... thing going on with all of this, where the distrust of Ottawa representing Alberta's interests properly is always in the background," he said. 

"James Rajotte works out of the Canadian embassy, right? There's very little that he does that the Canadian, the federal government officials are not aware of."

Fewer staff at international offices 

In additional to its North American offices, Alberta has staff in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Taiwan, Delhi, Singapore and London, which are the responsibility of Invest Alberta, a Crown corporation set up in 2020.

While none of the international offices have closed in the past two years, almost all are operating with fewer staff members than in 2019. A spokesperson said some staff have left the offices and the government is looking to replace them. 

Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview MLA Deron Bilous, the NDP critic for jobs, economy and innovation, was the economic development and trade minister when his party was in government. As minister, Bilous led trade missions to connect Alberta businesses with investors in Asia. 

Bilous said the current government's focus is to encourage investors to come to Alberta, not to assist Alberta businesses find contracts overseas. He said the international offices no longer have the staff to make those connections. 

He worried the current government is putting all its eggs in one basket by focusing heavily on the U.S. market. 

The location of the new U.S. trade offices reveals the government is still focused solely on oil and gas investment, and not on diversification, Bilous said.

He questioned, for example, why Alberta no longer has a presence in Silicon Valley or the United Arab Emirates. 

"The U.S. obviously is our largest trading partner. Having representatives in [that] market to promote Alberta, I think is a good thing," he said.

"For me, the frustration is that the rest of priority markets for us have been completely gutted."

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