The Need to Take Risks

Canadians are starting to see entrepreneurship as key to maintaining a strong identity

Ross Laver December 20 1999

The Need to Take Risks

Canadians are starting to see entrepreneurship as key to maintaining a strong identity

Ross Laver December 20 1999

The Need to Take Risks



Canadians are starting to see entrepreneurship as key to maintaining a strong identity

Ross Laver

He is the scion of one of corporate Canadas best-known leaders, yet Edward Wilson has ventured a long way from his fathers establishment footsteps. At 25, the McGill University graduate and son of BCE Corp. chairman Lynton (Red) Wilson is the founder of, a tiny Montrealbased Web start-up that sells discounted textbooks, software and related products to university students in Central and Eastern Canada. Like many young entrepreneurs, Wilson isn’t exactly living the high life: he works seven days a week, draws no salary and has only one full-time employee. But he’s not complaining. “Being responsible for your own destiny, it’s a completely different attitude than working at a big company,” says Wilson, who once spent two months in the industrial relations department of BCE subsidiary Bell Canada. “It’s entirely possible that next year I’ll find myself broke and penniless. But if that happened, my mind would be on my next project, trying to come up with a better product than the guy down the street.”

To some extent, Edward Wilson appears representative of a generational shift. In marked contrast to their southern neighbours, Canadians on the whole have never prided

themselves on their entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take risks. As Red Wilson puts it, “We’ve tended to think of a businessman as someone who has been given some kind of charter or a licence by government, and hence there’s a certain suspicion of people who do things independently.” There’s still undoubtedly a lot of truth to the old stereotype, but this year’s Macleans!CBC poll suggests that those attitudes are changing. Overall, 83 per cent of those surveyed say that Canadians will need to demonstrate more entrepreneurial spirit in the next century in order to maintain a strong national identity. Similarly, three out of four respondents say more “willingness to take risks” would bolster our national identity.

In general, younger Canadians appear most convinced of the need for more entrepreneurship. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents aged 18 to 24 say a stronger entrepreneurial mind-set would strengthen Canadians’ identity, compared with 73 per cent of those aged 65 or older. Similarly, Quebecers are somewhat more inclined to favour an increased focus on entrepreneurship than respondents in Englishspeaking provinces—although there, too, the differences are in degree rather than kind. “We’ve always looked to Americans as the true entrepreneurs,” says Michael Sullivan, a partner in the polling firm The Strategic Counsel, “but in the past decade in Canada small-business owners have really been the heroes of our economy in terms of creating new jobs.” Adds Sullivan: “There’s also an element, I think, of people looking

Losing control

Percentage of Canadians saying that in the past few years there has been .. .

A loss of Canadian control of businesses operating in Canada 64 No change in Canadian control of businesses operating in Canada 14 An increase in Canadian control of businesses operating in Canada 14

Keep Canada Canadian

Percentage of Canadians saying . . .

Canadian ownership of businesses operating in Canada is 73 an important part of what makes us Canadian Greater Canadian control of businesses operating in Canada is essential in maintaining a strong identity in the new century 83 Greater entrepreneurial spirit is essential in maintaining a strong identity in the new century 83 Greater willingness to take risks is essential in maintaining a strong identity in the new century 73

over the border, seeing how new businesses have been transforming society in the United States and saying to themselves, ‘We need a piece of that here.’ ”

The Strategic Counsel’s chairman, Allan Gregg, agrees that Canadians have come to embrace the notion of entrepreneurship, but cautions that the word may conjure up different images on either side of the Canada-U.S. border. “For Canadians, it’s not so much an expression of unbridled faith in free enterprise, but more a defence mechanism against an increasingly uncertain world,’’ he says. “They see it not as American-style, dog-eat-dog entrepreneurship, but more a case of the triumphant businessman starting something from scratch and retiring comfortably at age 55.”

It’s a dream that a growing number of Canadians are chasing. According to Statistics Canada, the number of selfemployed people across the country doubled between 1976 and 1998, to 2.5 million. In the wake of the last recession, some economists have attributed the increase to a scarcity of traditional, full-time positions. But others note that younger people in particular crave the flexibility and independence

associated with self-employment. They also tend not to have families, mortgages and other financial encumbrances that require a stable income. “Right now, I’m still young, so I don’t really feel the pressure to earn a steady paycheque,” says Ed Wilson.

Of course, it’s not just young Canadians who dream of working for themselves. In a survey conducted earlier this year by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Scotiabank, 46 per cent of respondents said they were “somewhat or very likely” to consider going into business for themselves. The same study showed that Canadians view smallbusiness owners as highly motivated, responsive to customer needs and innovative. Asked to explain their positive view of entrepreneurs and small business, the largest group of respondents, 42 per cent, cited the contribution small firms make to job creation. “I think sometimes we don’t credit ourselves with being as entrepreneurial as we are,” says CFIB president Catherine Swift. “It’s part of our national psyche that we consistently underrate ourselves, and yet entrepreneurs are held in very high esteem.”

High on the hog

Percentage of respondents saying their standard of living is higher than in the other country

Canada 41

U.S. 31

Support for entrepreneurship may also stem from a feeling that the traditional pillars of Canada’s economy are gradually

succumbing to foreign domination. Nationally, 79 per cent of those polled say that U.S. investment and business takeovers are making Canadians “more like Americans.” And 64 per cent say that in the past few years there has been a decline in Canadian control of businesses operating in this country. The evidence surrounds Canadians in the prominence of such huge U.S. retailers as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Sears.

While in the first nine months of this year, U.S. interests snapped up Canadian companies at twice last years buy-out rate, 14 per cent of respondents still believe there has been an increase in Canadian control; an equal proportion say there has been no change. But the strong conviction of a decline in Canadian ownership strikes Gregg as evidence of deep-seated public unease. “There’s a strong sense that were losing control,” he says, “but so far it’s an issue that hasn’t been engaged by politicians. It’s a classic sleeper issue.”

Right now, that issue resonates most strongly in English-speaking Canada—and particularly in British Columbia, scene of the recent $3-billion takeover of forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. by Seattle-based Weyer-

The attraction of a common currency

Percentage of Canadians saying .

Canada would benefit 44 No impact either way 8 Canada would lose out 42

Better times

Percentage saying their personal financial situation has gotten better over the past decade:

Saying “gotten better,” by Canadian subgroup in 1999:

B.C. Prairies Ontario Quebec Atlantic Men Women 44 36 44 29 40 44 33

Assessing free trade

Percentage of Canadians saying . . .

4 9 -~24 17 I 66 63 .1 Percentage of Canadians saying... 1990 Canada has benefited more Same effect in both countries U.S. has benefited more 1999 ____

American pressures

(Asked of the 50 per cent of Canadian respondents who think Canadians are becoming more like Americans.) Percentage saying these factors had an impact:

American media such as TV, magazines and films 84 U.S. investment and takeovers of Canadian business 79 The North American Free Trade Agreement 70

haeuser Co. Conversely, Quebecers are least likely to say that Canadians are losing control of businesses operating in Canada. Twenty-five per cent of Quebec respondents say there has been an increase in Canadian control in recent years, roughly double the percentage in the rest of the country.

On a related question, 73 per cent of those polled agree that Canadian ownership of businesses operating in Canada “is an important part of what makes us Canadian.” That is less than the percentage of respondents who consider the flag, our climate and our health-care system as important touchstones of national identity, but slightly more than the number who feel that way about hockey, gun control and public broadcasting. “It speaks to a trend we’ve been aware of in the past fewyears,” says Sullivan. “As other institutions, especially government, have become less important in people’s day-to-day lives, business has really gained power and influence. You could even say it’s omnipresent.”

All of that might lead some observers to conclude that Canadians are in a feisty nationalist mood, determined to keep their distance from the American economic machine. But when it comes to preserving one of the most visible symbols of the Canadian economy, the poll respondents are sharply divided. Asked whether, overall, Canada “would benefit or lose out from having a common currency with the United States,” 44 per cent say it would benefit the country and 42 per cent say it would hurt. Eight per cent foresee no impact either way. The results were close to evenly split in every province except Quebec, where fully half say a common currency would help Canada and only 35 per cent believe the country would suffer. (The Bloc Québécois is the only federal party on record as supporting a common North American currency.)

How to explain this widespread willingness to see the loonie replaced by the American greenback—along with a solid rejection of a political union? No doubt much of it stems from the weakened state of the Canadian dollar and a sense that Canadians are falling behind their American neighbours in material terms. Perhaps, too, like any good entrepreneur, the U.S. buck’s supporters are more concerned about making money—any money—than about the colour that currency happens to be. EH]