By Alex Binkley

When Stephen Brooks joined the Chamber of Marine Commerce (CMC) in 2006 after working for more than twelve years as a political aide, the maritime industry had little profile with politicians and bureaucrats outside Transport Canada. “In all that time on Parliament Hill, I never heard anyone state that Canada was a maritime nation,” he recalls in an interview. Nor did the industry talk to the politicians or government policy makers about “the environmental friendliness of shipping or its importance to the economy. We never heard that story.”

Brooks became President of CMC in April, 2013, switching posts with Ray Johnston, who remains Executive Vice-President. With the Great Lakes economic impact study in hand and backed by the Marine Delivers and Green Marine programs, Brooks wants to step up the Chamber’s role in spreading the message about the benefits of marine shipping. “We have a lot of good news to tell and this is a strategic time to do it.”

To demonstrate the value of industry-government interaction, the Chamber arranged for Members of Parliament and industry officials to witness firsthand the Coast Guard icebreaker Samuel Risley crunching through thick ice on Lake St. Clair March 21. Afterward, the Chamber arranged for industry executives to discuss the challenges facing the Coast Guard in building the capacity to open the Great Lakes for navigation earlier than the usual mid-March time frame, Brooks said. This year the Welland Canal will open March 28 and the Montreal-Lake Ontario section March 31 because of widespread heavy ice on the Great Lakes from the long, cold winter.

“We had a real conversation on what it would take to open earlier,” Brooks explained. Executives of various companies explained why they could use a longer shipping season. “This is the kind of event that is conducive for the Chamber to broker the relationship among shipowners, the Coast Guard, the Seaway and the customers.”

It was also important for MPs to learn about the issue because the government will have to enable the Coast Guard to acquire state-of-the-art icebreakers, he added. The Chamber can take a lead role reinforced by its 170 member shipping lines, ports and industries to help explain the importance of waterborne transportation, Brooks notes. “There are so many organizations that are involved. We have to get them to speak with one voice.”

The Chamber also takes the message about marine transport to Capitol Hill in Washington as well as state and provincial legislatures. The 2011 economic impact study has proved to be a real attention getter with its message that cargo shipments on the Great Lakes-Seaway system generate $34.6 billion of economic activity and 227,000 jobs in Canada and the U.S.

Before taking a job as legislative assistant on the Hill in 1993, Brooks worked for the Conference Board of Canada for five years. In January 2003, he joined then Opposition Leader Stephen Harper as an advisor. In May 2005, he went into the private sector as a public affairs consultant for in the pharmaceutical sector. That’s when Johnston lured him to CMC to build up its government relations and communications heft.

“The Chamber was always intended to be an umbrella organization to raise the overall profile of the sector,” he notes. “Our job is to look after the broad perspective of the marine transport industry. We’ve started to educate Parliamentarians and government in general about what the marine industry is all about. “We arrange meetings with MPs and Senators and Transport Canada,” he continues. “We helped create the all-party marine caucus to connect the politicians and the industry leaders. The caucus has influenced a lot of policies. We want to change the channel for the industry and tell our good news story. We are ready to contribute to the development of regulations and legislation.

“When there are technical issues, we look to members like the Canadian Shipowners Association, the Shipping Federation of Canada and the Association of Canadian Port Authorities to take them on,” he adds. The Chamber’s basic message to politicians and decision makers is “The marine industry is vital to our prosperity by enabling efficient trade within North America and around the world. As the safest, most efficient and environmentally smart method of carrying bulk freight, increased use of marine transportation alleviates highway congestion, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is a vital catalyst to overall economic prosperity.” The Chamber is also trying to deliver the message that conventions developed by the International Marine Organization to make shipping safer and more environmental friendly can have a detrimental impact on Great Lakes shipping, he points out. Both its ballast treatment and emission control area rules don’t take into account the unique circumstances of the Seaway-Great Lakes.

Members of the Chamber include shippers that rely on water transport, the Seaway corporations, port terminals, elevators, and logistics companies and marine supply companies.