By Paul Blomerus
Although shipping plays a major role in global commerce, it is not a topic that most Canadians follow very closely. But the invisible strings that tie the globe together have been more obvious this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has made strained trading networks more evident. Indeed, seven in ten Canadians surveyed in the latest Angus Reid Institute (ARI) and Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping poll1 say they’ve learned more about global supply chains this year as they have dealt with shortages of medicines, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and even household goods like toilet paper.
While the survey tells us that when they do think about it, Canadians are positively disposed to marine shipping (80 per cent have a good impression), it also provides a glimpse into the future. The survey found that Canadians are looking to the shipping industry to play a major role in the post-pandemic economic recovery by “rebuilding it right.” The majority (60 per cent) of Canadians say that the environment should be prioritized (23 per cent) – or at least balanced with economic need (37 per cent). But a sizeable minority (40 per cent) of respondents say that the economic side of this equation is more important.
As we look at the results across the country, regional and provincial differences emerge around the perceived risks and opportunities associated with marine shipping. Prioritizing economic recovery over environmental protection is a dominant viewpoint in Alberta and Saskatchewan where 55 per cent or more of respondents favoured this approach.
Digging deeper, the survey explored perspectives on a number of topics relating to the safety of shipping that reveal underlying motivations for these regional differences. When it comes to the safety of oil tankers, those in Alberta and Saskatchewan are more confident. As residents of provinces dependent on energy and commodity exports, a substantial 75 per cent and 69 per cent of Alberta and Saskatchewan respondents respectively say they are very or somewhat confident about shipping oil products compared to the national average of 55 per cent.
In contrast, residents of B.C., Ontario and Quebec – the provinces through which these exports must pass to reach international markets – are twice as likely to express concerns about the safety of shipping oil by tanker. This cautious attitude is not confined purely to oil tankers. Doubts extend to the role of government in keeping marine shipping as a whole safe. Residents of provinces with international ports are twice as likely to voice concerns about the safety policies and procedures in place and the level of government oversight compared to their counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
So, what lessons can be learned by government policy makers and industry leaders? How can they reconcile this cautious attitude to marine shipping of all kinds held by residents of the provinces with the facilities to support Canada’s import and export trade? The answer, perhaps, lies in the analysis of attitudes to the economic recovery by age group. The survey results indicated a major dividing line based on age with some 70 per cent of Canadians under 45 years old wanting some form of environmental checks and balances on the marine shipping industry as it helps to deliver the economic recovery; those who seek to minimize environmental protections are only in the majority in the group above 45 years old.
The rising influence of the younger generation and their expectations when it comes to environmental protections may provide a solution to this quandary. Although higher standards will pose a challenge for the marine shipping industry and its regulators, this may be the key that will support a vibrant import-export economy made possible by marine shipping.
And if the industry is to succeed in attracting this cohort of future leaders and influencers to join its workforce and support it publicly, then marine shipping must continue to adapt to the issues that young Canadians care about. Policy makers — nationally and provincially — must be mindful too that to build Canada’s export markets and industries reliant on imports, they need to take into account this rising generation that puts the environment first and actively supports “rebuilding it right.”
Paul Blomerus, PhD, is the Executive Director of Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping. He has published research on a range of marine shipping and transportation issues.
1 The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from October 5 – 9, 2020 among a representative randomized sample of 2,277 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. You can read the full study at: http://bit.ly/2VrCGhZ