I had the pleasure of taking part in a recent panel at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa as part of a Six Estate series called Before the Bell. It’s an event series that focuses on business and government. My fellow panelists included Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Forest Products Association of Canada CEO Derek Nighbor. Amy Karam, of Karam Consulting; Sarah Goldfeder, principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group; and Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research took part in an earlier panel that morning.

By the end of the event, the message was clear: Trade is alive and well in Canada and a progressive trade agenda is important to Canadians.

Moderator Catherine Clark asked me to highlight some of the ways EDC is supporting Canada’s progressive trade agenda, which means advocating for gender equality and environmental sustainability and better addressing the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Doing our part to deliver on this agenda is core to everything we do. We’re totally focused on growing Canada’s exporter community and the progressive trade agenda dovetails nicely with Canadian capabilities in growth areas around the world.

Environmental considerations and our Canadian cleantech companies

Cleantech is the perfect example. Environmental considerations are an integral part of the government’s priorities and our Canadian cleantech companies have the right talent and solutions to deliver against those priorities. Supporting cleantech companies has been a major focus for us for several years. In fact, we’ve supported, in the last four years alone, about $3.5 billion worth of business with 170 companies exporting to 114 countries. We’re connecting strong Canadian companies with buyers in new markets and helping them grow from a Canadian company to a global leader.

Women owned businesses is a key priority

When it comes to gender issues, women-owned businesses are also a key priority for us. There’s a comprehensive ecosystem for women entrepreneurs in Canada, but there are gaps we want to address to help women grow their businesses internationally.

As an example, we recently hosted a conference titled Power the Economy— Growing Women-Owned Businesses in Canada, which included powerful presentations from female entrepreneurs and valuable networking opportunities.

Finally, we are turning more attention to finding ways to support indigenous-owned companies.

The imperative of a diversification strategy

I explained that most of our customers export to the U.S., but stressed that it’s our job to help them diversify to other established and emerging markets. For example, the opportunities in Asia-Pacific closely match the capabilities of Canadian companies. Our job is to encourage companies to consider these markets and to give them the tools they need for a diversification strategy to do business there.

To help companies connect to new opportunities, we have developed an extensive global network with boots on the ground in markets that hold the most potential for Canadian companies. We have also forged strong relationships with the international banking community, major international buyers and government trade departments.

Ultimately, our goal is to give Canadian companies the knowledge and the financing they need to reduce the risk of selling to markets outside North America.

Bullish on Canadian trade

When Catherine asked me why I was still bullish on Canadian trade, my answer was simple: When I meet with Canadian companies, their skill sets and their capabilities match the needs of international buyers. We’ve invested heavily in trying to help Canadian companies find the one thing they need—international customers.

When we’re promoting Canadian expertise, international buyers often say: ‘I didn’t realize the talent and technology that Canada has to offer.’ They like the Canadian brand, they like what it stands for and they’re very willing to meet our Canadian entrepreneurs.

Our goal is to help buyers understand the value that Canadian companies bring to the table and to help Canadian companies deal with the risks of selling to new markets. That’s where we’re making our significant investment. With our team of 50 market experts, my favourite words are match.com. Our job is to match international buyers to qualified Canadian companies.

Potential of NAFTA fallout

Asked about the potential fallout if the U.S. pulls out of NAFTA, I told the group that business is done with business and, regardless of what happens with trade agreements, there are deals in place.

My advice to Canadian companies is for them to get as close as possible to their U.S. customers to gauge what they are thinking and planning. At the same time, they should start looking seriously at selling to other markets.

That’s the first rule of business: keep your customers close and always keep an open mind to new possibilities. And the bottom line is that we’re here to help.