Several years ago, Robert Greenhill, then a policy leader at the International Development Research Centre, shocked many by arguing that despite the billions of dollars Canada spends on matters outside its borders, our impact was insignificant. Meanwhile, it is frequently said Canadians often rely on cliches and the non-answer "Not an American" when asked: "What is a Canadian?"
Our nebulous self-image is a lost opportunity, with potentially negative long-term social consequences. Future population growth will come from outside Canadian borders. Yet how can we be united if we cannot describe what it is to be Canadian?
The problem isn't money or resources. The loonie (Canadian dollar) has had a record few years. Canada's iron, oil and unspoiled land are abundant. Life's good, yet our wealth makes us complacent. We have 20 per cent of Earth's water, but the French have Evian and Perrier. And they sell it for more than the cost of high-octane gasoline.
That's the rub. Canada does not transform its resources into products with tangible value and unique characteristics. Anthropologists say countries exhibit undeniable traits, which are often interpreted into commercial products. German efficiency is apparent in its exquisite mechanical engineering: think BMW. Swiss punctuality morphs into precision-made watches, like Rolex. These countries' people influence their products, which reinforce the citizenry's self-perception. Products build countries' brands.
So commercial a notion as branding a country might be distasteful, but in this context, branding is reputation management and a necessity Canada has left to chance. The most the government has done is commission logos - more than 800 in the past decade. Private enterprise and academia must step up. Each could contribute ideas and energy, as well as money. Let the government do what it does best: facilitate.
It's time to create a more visible Canada. There is untapped opportunity that could bring considerable social, economic and even environmental benefits, through satisfying the needs of a burgeoning, global demographic. Affluent, neo-green, Prius-driving consumers are clamouring to buy sustainable products, and will pay a premium to do so. The New York Times' Thomas L Friedman noted that "the major industrial country that gets greenest the fastest, with the smartest technologies ... will lead the 21st century".
Why not Canada? We've got the right logo: a maple leaf! We have the commodity resources, but we must use them to develop more sustainable solutions and higher-quality products. Sustainability could be the ambassador of our identity. Building Canada's brand should take priority, or we will fade further. Fat, happy, but forgotten.
Paul Lavoie is the chairman and chief creative officer of the Montreal-based TAXI agency group.