By Wendy Zatylny

In her insightful book on global shipping, Ninety Percent of Everything, author Rose George talks about “sea blindness” – that for most of us, the sea has become “a distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between takeoff and landing”.

But, in recent years I have seen signs that this is changing. As our ports evolve and grow, they are also reaching out to work with partners and neighbours in meaningful ways, to draw everyone into the conversation about how the transformation that our ports are experiencing is transforming Canada as well.

This transformation has been nothing short of revolutionary. In today’s extended, global supply chains, Canadian Port Authorities (CPAs) are no longer the start or end point of a linear journey. Rather, they are the nexus – the hub in a wheel – at the heart of system that sweeps out to deliver goods, resources and electronic data. Today’s journey of a thousand miles ends with an Amazon smile.

The key to success in this new paradigm is to build successful partnerships and programs that will allow us to embrace the new technologies, business models and changes to trade patterns that have both upended our old ways and cleared the way for a bold and progressive new paradigm.

We have already made significant progress, starting with the most fundamental part of operations: who we are. A lot of ports’ heavy lifting doesn’t only take place on the docks, more and more it’s on computer terminals. In this new world, port workers are efficiency experts, trade enablers, environmental specialists, security gurus and technology wizards who use their expertise to build a sustainable, safe, secure value-added logistics system within the supply chain. We have made a good start, but we are still evolving. And how well we adapt and grow affects every Canadian.

Canada’s ports are the irreplaceable way we move over 330 million tonnes of cargo, worth $400 billion, produced by Canadian businesses and needed in Canadian homes.

As we employ digitalization and other technologies to improve our effectiveness, we increase the country’s economic capacity, reduce business costs and continue to open the world to Canada — and Canada to the world.

But there is more to the success of ports than efficient logistics. We are keenly aware that ports are community assets that provide economic growth and opportunity.

Efficient transportation and regional economic opportunity are two sides of the same coin – and clearly define the steps we need to take collectively to transform and direct Canada’s port system.

We’ve started to define the path. At the end of 2018, the Association of Canadian Port Authorities delivered its response to the Minister of Transport’s Ports Modernization Review. As we stated in our submission, the review gave us an opportunity to reflect on the many challenges and opportunities our ports face in the evolving global economy. We reached out to our port authority members with surveys, interviews and CEO roundtables. The result of this exhaustive process was the development a series of comprehensive, realistic and workable recommendations that touch every aspect of port activity: foundational concerns, innovation and trade logistics, relationships with Indigenous Peoples, community relations, environmental sustainability, port safety, security and governance.

The review process also brought home an invaluable lesson: the nature of our relationships has changed, and the success of Canada’s ports will depend on understanding and developing new forms of partnership between ports, shippers, communities, suppliers and most importantly, government.

As a result, a central recommendation in our submission is a call to action to develop a National Transportation Strategy that would identify priority trade corridors and gateways in concert with Global Affairs Canada. This much-needed initiative would be an invaluable aid for CPAs, allowing them to strategize their business plans, and work more effectively with their supply chain partners to design an optimal logistics system within the context of a comprehensive multimodal network.

Our submission also recognized that in an era of rapidly shifting geopolitics and breathtakingly rapid technological advances, we have to come together to plan and innovate. As a result, we called on the government to create a high level “Future Visioning” working group that would recognize Canadian ports’ current role as multi-modal industrial hubs. This working group would advance our role as industrial and trade hubs, developing new assets such as logistics centres, transformational hubs, trade-enabling infrastructure, information centres and new employment opportunities.

In the same vein, we also called on the government to bring together a working group to design a digital road map with priorized projects that would support the industry-wide adoption of innovative technologies.

These are a few of the key recommendations we shared with the government. There are others, and it is important to note that they are all relevant and actionable. In fact, our recommendations are interrelated to the point that it would be difficult to move forward as an industry unless we are able to achieve some level of progress in each of them.

Of course, progress depends on more than submissions to government. ACPA is advancing its agenda in many ways, including the 2019 annual conference in the Saguenay. Working with our colleagues at the Port of Saguenay, we have created a program that addresses port’s questions and needs with cutting-edge information, innovative approaches and critical intelligence available nowhere else. Our aim is to use the conference to and make a meaningful and positive difference to CPAs’ current and future operations and strategies.

Ultimately, it is a question of shape or be shaped. We must work together to ensure that the aforementioned “sea-blindness” is a thing of the past. Canada’s ports are already hard at work to develop the technology and intellectual capacity we need. But we cannot act in isolation. With the commitment of the government, our ports, so firmly rooted in Canada’s history, economy and culture, can help further propel the country along the path to continued economic opportunity and growth.