Transcript – Episode 31: Chat with the Trade Commissioner Service: Ailish Campbell and the Atlantic Canada Regional Office
John Hannaford: Welcome, everyone. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to have another conversation with a colleague. And in a sense, it’s a celebration, because it’s the anniversary of quite an important institution for Canada as a market and as a country.
This is the 125th anniversary of the Trade Commissioner Service and it’s a real opportunity to kind of mark a remarkable history. The Trade Commissioner Service was kind of at the pointy edge of our existence as an international player. The first Canadian assigned abroad was a trade commissioner to Australia 125 years ago and the Service has continued to provide really critical service to Canadians to find new markets, to find new opportunities around the world. And I'm very lucky to have with me today my colleague, Ailish Campbell, who is the chief trade commissioner and has been in this role for three years. And just as an opportunity to take stock as to where we are and the evolution of this really critical service to the Canadian Government. So, welcome Ailish.
Ailish Campbell: Thanks so much.
John Hannaford: I guess I just want to start by inviting you to kind of reflect on where we are right now with the Service. As I say, it's been 125 years, but you've been in this job for 3 of those years and you've seen sort of a microcosm of that evolution and what would you say are the sort of strengths of the institution right now? And then we could talk a little bit about where we could see this going over the course of the next period of time. But let's start with the sort of current strengths of the organization.
Ailish Campbell: Yeah. As you said, our informed advice helps companies to hone their strategy, to evaluate the potential of foreign markets and make prudent business decisions.
We hear a lot from companies about how the Trade Commissioner Service, in fact, helps them discover potential pitfalls they didn't even know they might have in a market. The tremendous value of having our locally engaged staff and that real local knowledge is something that you and I, John, have talked a lot about. And I just want to recognize in this podcast that we stand very tall at the trade commissioner service with an incredible global team that includes some unique elements that I don't know that all of our Global Affairs Canada colleagues are aware of. And that includes not just our great headquarters team and our policy capacity here, but our regional offices across Canada. The Trade Commissioner Service is constantly innovating. And one of our new updates last year inside Canada was adding a regional office in Winnipeg. And globally, we have an incredible team. As I say, locally engaged staff with our incredible Canada based staff, our trade commissioners trained here that lead our teams abroad. So many awesome, fun things have happened over the last 3 years. But I'd say with the trade diversification strategy and a series of incredibly strong and dedicated ministers. Minister Freeland, Minister Carr, Minister Champagne and now Minister Ng. The trade diversification strategy has rolled out to allow us to do exciting things like our Canadian technology accelerators abroad, which we've expanded from the US to now globally — focusing on growth clients. And I think another key piece for us has been our partnerships with federal entities like Export Development Canada, a stronger innovation component with our colleagues at ISED [Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada] and I'm really excited about the year ahead, particularly as we focus on women and diversity exporters with colleagues at Business Development Canada that focus on small business finance. Not to mention, because I could just go on, our fantastic partnerships with provinces and territories. We really are Canada. And by Canada I mean every province, every territory, every city we are their network abroad.
John Hannaford: Expand a little bit on the role of the regional offices, because I think that's one of the… It's a really interesting institution within the broader department because, you know…
Ailish Campbell: …it is…
John Hannaford: …we've got… obviously we think of our missions abroad. And that is an incredible strength of this ministry generally. But one of the really interesting aspects of the trade portfolio is the regional offices. And I'm going to be in Halifax at the end of this week. And so this podcast will actually include both you and a conversation with folks in Halifax, but kind of interested in, you know, hearing a little bit more about the role that those offices play, which is, I think, unique.
Ailish Campbell: It is really unique. So I'm going to say sort of like 3 key things. The first is, you know, we have to commit to going where businesses are. And of course, that means our global network abroad. But where a company is headquartered, that's here in Canada. And the mission is to get Canadian headquartered companies growing global. So that requires a network that some of our colleagues would say is inter-mestic, or both domestic and international at the same time. The second piece is, I mean, listen, there's nothing better than local intel and we should include Canada and our understanding of this country and its very varied regions and city innovation and business ecosystems as part of our intelligence that we also offer the world. So although it's not necessarily the primary focus of the trade commissioners, their capacity to host inbound missions to give people in provincial and territorial governments information about, for example, foreign investors coming into Canada. Because of our network, these things are completely and totally synergistic. And the last thing I would say is, as the Foreign Service is committed to representing Canada, I can't commend enough regional offices as a career moment for our foreign service team that you have a chance. And I think, again, it's a unique feature that we don't always appreciate. There is an opportunity to have a posting, one of your periods of service in one of our regional offices as a trade commissioner. And I think that makes us a stronger department.
John Hannaford: Yeah, I completely agree. Because I mean, what you get there is an experience with the client base in a much more intimate way than, you know, a lot of folks do in headquarters. And there's a real opportunity to immerse yourself.
Ailish Campbell: And if you'll allow me just for a moment to put on my, you know, Finance Canada hat…
John Hannaford: …please…
Ailish Campbell:..I would also say it's really important for us to remember that market preparation is much more efficient with taxpayer dollars when it's done in Canada. So in other words, we want you doing your preparation for your trip to, say, Israel or to Tokyo, or your trip to Peru, in Canada. Particularly for markets and companies where they are an IP intensive or an R&D intensive business, are they really prepared? Are they ready with strategies to protect their assets when they go abroad? And doing that preparation in Canada is frankly much more efficient than finding out when you're on your trade mission or at your trade show or in a high-powered meeting with, for example, the CTO [Chief Technology Officer] of a Fortune 100 company that a trade commissioner has facilitated for you to find out that, for example, some of your intellectual property advice has some gaps for that particular market or region. So, again, there's also a really amazing sort of business-facing preparation aspect to this that I think you appreciate.
John Hannaford: Right. Perhaps we can talk a little about the future. Your ambitions for the Service. And it’s quite an exciting time with respect to international trade, and there are many international opportunities. But there are challenges as well. What are your intentions for the Service?
Ailish Campbell: Yes, so, the opportunities for innovation are – there are a number of ideas.
One of the things that I'm really excited about, as I've discussed, is the CTA expansion, the Canadian Technology Accelerator expansion. So let me commend to you — dare I suggest a podcast, yet another one of your chapters. Like let's get some of our incredible trade commissioners who are leading some of those CTAs. They started in Boston. We piloted them in the US and we're now going to see them.
John Hannaford: Describe a little bit, Ailish – it`s a deeply cool idea. I had a chance to go and visit the accelerator in New York, but it's a really, really interesting model.
Ailish Campbell: It's a high touch set of services for specific cohorts of companies. We bundle, by sector or even by technology, a group of companies. They might be doing water remediation and technologies, they might be doing, for example, biotech life sciences. And we bring them to a market where the ecosystem is incredibly strong for that particular set of clients. And I can't commend enough the incredible network across the United States. The U.S. continues to be, as you know, more than 70 percent of our total trade. It's where a lot of our Trade Commissioner Service innovations for high tech companies come from. So as you say, New York, Boston, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Denver, these are where we've piloted, including for clean technology, some of our CTAs. But I'm really thrilled that as of this year, we're going to see them not only in the US, but also Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore and Mexico City. And coming up, because you asked about the future, we're expanding to Berlin, London and Delhi.
We are also launching a major digital transformation to modernize clients’ experience — our digital tools, our online presence.
This initiative is going to focus on 3 big pillars. First of all, again, to kind of keep the client facing piece of our services dynamic — we're what I call right now an H to H organization, human to human. And we want to move some of our, I'll put it this way, more information based services from, C, for the client, to D, digital - from C to D. So from H to H, to C to D. Secondly, we want to make sure that our partnerships with some of the entities we were talking about, that the client, the business is able to move more seamlessly between ourselves and entities like Export Development Canada and Innovation Services from NRC [National Research Council], IREP [Import to Re-export Program], for example. John, that's going to take time. Let's be perfectly frank. But I think if we keep the user and the client at the centre of this, with expertise on user centric design, we're absolutely going to get there. And third, I think, you know, we talk a lot about the use of data in this department, but in order to extract insights and true artificial intelligence one day, in other words, true, you know, actual new insights that have evolved out of applying, you know, good data analytics and algorithms to our information — our data has to be organized. So we're really in a quite serious, disciplined, you know — dare I finish a podcast on the Trade Commissioner Service without mentioning TRIO, because it's every trade commissioner's favourite thing — our client relationship management tool really needs modernization. And that's the other big piece, which again, leads to better optimization of our services to clients, and some of those insights I hope we can gain over time. Again, our chief economist working very closely with us on this. So super exciting.
John Hannaford: Fantastic. Well look, 125 years. It's a living organism. And this will continue to adapt to new circumstances. And I think there's a plan in place to do that to very good effect. So thanks, Ailish. Great to get a chance to chat and keep it up!
Ailish Campbell: Thanks and big Hi to the entire team that’s listening. We're super excited to celebrate the 125th anniversary with all of you.
John Hannaford: Fantastic.
Ailish Campbell: Yeah.
John Hannaford: Great. Thanks.
John Hannaford: This is the second part of today’s episode. I had a conversation two days ago with Ailish Campbell about the anniversary of the Trade Commissioner Service.
This is a chance to do something unique for this podcast. I think over the course of all the episodes between David Morrison and myself, we have always done them in Ottawa. But this is the first time the podcast is on the road. And it's a chance to chat with some colleagues in the regional office here in Halifax.
I'm delighted to be joined by Christine Smith is the director of the office here, and Carolyn Wood, who is the deputy director, and Stéphane Crépeau, who is a Trade Commissioner Service officer here. And just a chance really to hear a little bit about your experiences in the regional offices. I just had an opportunity to meet with the team here. And I was saying that piece of advice that was given to me when I first joined the department, again as deputy minister, was to go and talk to people in the regional offices – that it's such a critical part of the service that we provide through to the Trade Commissioner Service. And so my first trip was actually to Vancouver, where I met with the team there. And I'm delighted to have hit the other coast.
So, Christine, maybe we just start with you. And give me a little bit of a sense of this office, the scale of it, some of the functions that you perform and your perspective on kind of the role of regional offices in the network generally.
Christine Smith: Well, the regional office in Atlantic Canada isn't a large group, we’re 14 in total and we cover four provinces. And I think that's an important thing to say because we are a small team and we're covering a lot of geography, which is part of regional office reality. So there's a lot of travel and that can be interesting and fun or challenging, as you've seen today in the region. So to help us ensure we have a presence on the ground in all of our provinces, we have adopted a hub and spoke model for the Atlantic region. And so what that means is we have one physical office here in Halifax, which houses 8 of our staff. We have one co-location of a trade commissioner in an industry association, which is Stephane. He's with the Aerospace and Defense Association here in Halifax. We have 2 officers in St. John's, Newfoundland, our 1 in Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, who are co-located at the BBC office. And we have two officers working with Export Development Canada out of their office in Moncton. So these strategic partnerships that we've established allows us to have physical infrastructure on the ground in each province, but it also allows us to work alongside like-minded business development professionals who are also SME [subject matter experts] in the region. So it works very well.
We cover a variety of sectors in Atlantic Canada. And although when a lot of people think of Atlantic Canada and exports, they think of seafood, which is, of course, our biggest export and it's truly important. We focus a lot of our time and effort around sectors that have high potential, high growth companies. So we're working in sectors like ocean tech, which Stéphane will talk to a little bit in more detail. We also cover information and communications technologies in the Atlantic region, some really neat pockets of activity around gaming, cybersecurity, for example. We have clean technology companies that are leading edge and world renowned for what they do. And we have some life sciences companies, some of whom you've met today, that that really have innovative and neat technologies that they're selling on a global stage. We also still cover other sectors, of course. Education is a big one here. Oil and gas due to Newfoundland’s influence on the offshore, and those are the sectors that we prioritize. So, you know, really and truly regional office trade commissioners are the frontline of delivery of services to Canadian companies. We are out there in the field. That can be really rewarding and interesting. And we not only promote trade in general, but we really make sure that companies understand and have access to the programs that we have, such as CanExport, to the services and connections we can make through our wonderful network of trade commissioners working all around the world, and that they really understand the benefits that are afforded to them through the free trade agreements, because we do have a lot of preferential access. So, making sure companies understand that is one of our key roles.
The last thing that I'd like to say about working in a regional context is the partnership angle. So here in Atlantic Canada, we're really fortunate. It's a part of the country, we’re working collaboratively. People pulling together when times are hard is really part of the history and the way people work here. And we've built on that and we have really good, solid relationships with federal partners such as ISED, the Regional Development Agency here, ACOA, and as well the provincial government organizations that work in trade. And by working with these partners collaboratively it really allows us, as a really small team covering a lot of geography, to enlarge our reach and make sure that we're reaching companies, SMEs across the region that can really grow through export and can really use the services that we offer.
John Hannaford: It's a thing that really struck me in the course of the day — really how much this is a point of integration for the federal government. It's fascinating. You wouldn't necessarily predict that the regions would be the point where we actually do work extraordinarily closely together. I think that might happen at headquarters. But in fact, I think you guys are a proof point that integration is a very powerful tool and you use that to an extraordinarily positive effect here with regional clients. Carolyn, maybe you could give us a little bit of a sense as to what are the plans for the coming year. This is, well, as I said at the outset, the one 125th anniversary of the foundation of the Trade Commission Service. So kind of interested in what that means for this office.
Carolyn Wood: Sure. I'd love to tell you a little bit more about what we're doing. I think every year it's important that we build on things that we've done in the past. And this past year, we've really been trying out some new ways of working and trying to be innovative in our approach. So, for example, in both St. John's, Newfoundland and here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, some of our trade commissioners have begun having office hours at the Genesis Center in St. John's, and at Volta Labs in Halifax. These are both innovation hubs and they're doing just incredible work, really helping to build out our technology cluster and help our companies scale up. In fact, I'm really proud to tell you, I'm not sure if you're aware, but the largest venture funding deal in Canada, ever, happened in 2019 with a company in St. John's, Newfoundland. This company is a Genesis graduate and it's called Verafin. And it's a really cool financial crime management software company. And they're selling globally from St. John's, Newfoundland. The deal was 515 Million dollar financing transaction, so it was huge. So having trade commissioners working at these hubs allows them to easily meet clients. It makes them much more accessible because the clients just see them as part of their extended team. So we're able to provide guidance and advice in a really timely fashion. It's also great. It allows our trade commissioners to meet the companies and get to know them early on, and they may be the future Verafins. They're able to identify any challenges the companies are having. It also helps develop our pipeline for the Canadian Technology Accelerator Program, which is really key in the technology space. So we really collaborate with our colleagues in headquarters. We share intelligence. We help recruit candidates for the CTA [Canadian Trade Accelerator]. We track successes. In fact, to date, we've had 36 Atlantic Canadian CTA alumni companies. And you heard first hand this afternoon from one of our companies, how beneficial it was. With the addition of the new CTA starting up this year in Delhi and London and Berlin, we're excited that we're going to have even more Atlantic Canadian companies attending CTAs and participating and helping our companies to commercialize, scale up or seek investment — whatever it is that they need.
Another initiative that we've been focused on is, is our work with the business women and trade files. So really important file for the Government in Canada. It's a really important file for the trade commissioner service. And so our colleagues at headquarters have really done a lot of work on this file and worked on the strategy and worked in collaboration with the regional offices. And we're really excited to really make this the year that we really implement that strategy. We've become members of our businesswomen's associations in the region. We're looking forward to working more closely with them and also with their member companies. We've had some discussions with some regional partners to talk about some capacity building initiatives in the region to help women business exporters or women businesses’ export more. And that's really exciting. Some more to more to come on that. We talked a bit about some of our sectors and the ocean tech sector is super exciting and it's a really important one for our region. And one initiative that I'd really like to highlight is an ocean tech conference that happens here in June every year. And it's called H2O, which stands for Home to Overseas. But it's also at the chemical formula for water, as you know. Last year the conference hosted participants from 15 countries. And the conference has only been going for a few years. So it's nice to see that much interest in our region and interest in the sector. We hope to encourage even more participation this year. And I know Stéphane has been actively engaging with our colleagues to share these details and encourage participation. So hopefully this year we'll have even more countries participate. Working in a regional office is super exciting and I just want to stress how exciting it is because we are the consistent for the companies, so we're the one that the company sees over and over again. So we're dealing with them, with their trade barrier issue issues. We're dealing with them to leverage free trade agreements. And one day we might be connecting them to London. The next week it could be to Delhi. So it's really exciting work and we're excited about the year ahead.
John Hannaford: Fantastic. I’m here for conversation with a range of other departments and private-sector members regarding ocean sciences. Stéphane, that’s one of your responsibilities, and perhaps you can give us a sense of the oceans-related activities.
Stéphane Crépeau: Of course. As Carolyn mentioned, it is a very interesting sector. My work as a trade commissioner here is even more interesting because it is really taking off, and there are lots of changes at the same time. When people think about the ocean tech sector, they often think about the fishery or the seafood sector. As Christine said, it’s an important sector here, but there are many other things going on as well. I mainly work with a lot of defence companies in terms of ocean theory, sonar, shipbuilding. Combat vessels are manufactured here, or will be built here in Halifax, in terms of radar, sensors… so a lot of defence technology, but also in terms of renewable energy, marine biology, oil and gas, aquaculture… In fact, a number of Atlantic companies are world leaders in those sectors. There are a number of players here in the region that are involved in the sector … both locally and around the world, based in Atlantic Canada. As you know, we have the ocean super cluster, one of the five super clusters here. So, the role of the super cluster is like really to… it’s an industry-led entity and government supported that aims to position Canada as a leader in the ocean tech sector. So we work very closely with them. In fact, I would say most of their members are already clients of the Trade Commissioner Service. But for the sector in the region, a lot of players are involved. We have like a provincial government, municipal government, industry associations, universities. But I'd like to point out one organization, it’s pretty interesting. It's called COVE, Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship. And maybe you can see, maybe not that clear, but it's just on the other side of the Halifax Harbor and it's an old Coast Guard base. So basically it just opened a year and a half ago or so. But it's really kind of an incubator or a place where everything related to ocean tech in Atlantic Canada. So it's a mix of like new companies, startups, foreign companies have some offices there, SMEs and organizations... Everybody is there. So the last time I counted, it’s somewhat of a joke, because each time there two or three more tenants, every two or three weeks. So now they are about 70 tenants over there. And it's a very nice place to go. And next time you really should really have a visit to show you how it is.
John Hannaford: Fantastic.
Stéphane Crépeau: My role as a trade commissioner is to work directly with the companies and all those organizations here in being the first point of contact to connect them to our network abroad. Because the sector is so integrated it’s very important for me to really work closely with all the other partners to make sure we are all going in the same direction. And I just want to finish give you like an interesting example how we work collaboratively with the partners, and also within our network. As you are aware, we have this program, internal program, that brings locally engaged trade commissioners to come to regional offices for a few weeks. So last year we had our colleagues from Berlin at the Canadian Embassy in Germany doing the ocean tech sector. So while he was here, we visited companies so he can expose more opportunities in Germany. So long story short, two months later with a full delegation of German companies, they were able to create those synergies, and actually real contracts and real things happened between those companies. To wrap up, it’s really a very interesting time to be a trade commissioner at the Atlantic regional office. Especially for the ocean tech sector, I would say.
John Hannaford: Thanks very much. Listen, we're close to the end, but I just want to get a sense: what would you like people in headquarters to know about life in the regions? I think the standard thought for a lot of folks who are either in headquarters or the field is that those are the kind of poles of the department: you're either on posting or you're in Ottawa. But, of course, you know, we've got people across the country like you who are in these regional offices playing this really important role. What would you like folks at headquarters, or in the field at post, to know?
Christine Smith: I think it's really important for people to realize that, you know, we are here on the ground and we've worked a lot with partners and we learn a lot through our network. So often when people have questions, if we don't have the answer, we can certainly find out through the networks that we have. And also that working in a regional office is extremely rewarding. Like Carolyn mentioned, you get to deal with the companies at all sorts of phases and you see them grow and develop and use the services at the Trade Commissioner Service. And there's nothing more rewarding than seeing firsthand…
John Hannaford: The effects of what you're doing.
Christine Smith: So as a public servant, I think we're in a really privileged position in that we work directly with our clients and the work that we do. We can see the direct results and we hear from our clients, and we have very good satisfaction ratings. So it's a very positive experience.
John Hannaford: Stéphane, Carolyn, any thoughts from your perspective?
Carolyn Wood: The one thing that I'd like to mention is: it is an exciting role and in headquarters, for example, and it would be much more siloed, your work. So you would be very specialized. In the region, we sort of do everything. So we're the communications, we're the frontline trade commissioner, we're dealing with trade policy, we're dealing with export controls, and we sort of coordinate and bring all of that to the client. So it's a really exciting role and it's one where we get to work with so many of our colleagues in all the different parts of the department. So every day is a little bit different. And it's really exciting.
Stéphane Crépeau: Yeah. That’s what I find the most exciting about our job. Because in the morning, I don't know, I might have to call early, like at 2 a.m. in Europe and respond to emails. Okay, Singapore can wait for a few hours because they’re sleeping right now. And we don't know, like every day is different. You could do the job for like 25 years and it’ll be a different day because it’s a different challenge every day. So that's what I like. It's always different. And again, it's very rewarding when you see the success of the companies you're working with.
John Hannaford: Fantastic. It was really a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk a little about your work. And congratulations, for all the work that you're doing. It is exciting. You can… the conversations that we've been having with stakeholders are extremely positive. And you can just see the activity in this part of the country, which is, you know, you're making a very direct contribution to. So thank you so much.
Carolyn Wood, Stéphane Crépeau, Christine Smith: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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