Is Canada a reliable trading partner? Vancouver Port troubles hurt our reputation

The recent strike at the Port of Vancouver highlighted issues at Canada’s busiest port but, let’s be honest, there have been big problems at the Port of Vancouver for a long time. While the on-again, off-again strike captures the current headlines, let’s not forget about all of the underlying issues that still persist.

Where do I start? For a country whose GDP is largely based on exports, including agriculture chemicals, fuel, lumber and automobiles, it is embarrassing that we’re gaining a reputation as an inconsistent trading partner. 

Global ranking puts Port of Vancouver second to last 

I’m not sure any of us knew how bad it was until this report came out, ranking the Port of Vancouver 347 out of 348 ports worldwide. The ranking is based on efficiency and number of days that ships must anchor offshore until they can load.

Issues around congestion, lack of storage space, BC flooding and an overhang from the pandemic meant that cargo vessels sat at anchor for roughly 10 days on average in the first half of 2022, more than twice as long as a year earlier, before they could dock and load.

Keep in mind, it costs shippers millions of dollars every day that container ships sit off the coast waiting to dock. 

In my opinion, this performance is atrocious for a country that relies economically on exporting goods to the world. 

As grain growers, we basically have two viable ports through which to ship our product – Vancouver and Montreal. Considering the St. Lawrence seaway freezes for a portion of the year, it goes without saying how much we rely on west coast shipping.

Having an inefficient and unreliable port impacts farmers directly as it devalues our product. 

What do I mean by that? The port’s poor performance gets built into the price we can charge for our grain because buyers don’t trust that they’re going to get it on time. 

Buyers will go elsewhere. They will choose to diversify their supply and that will impact the price that Canadian exporters can charge because there’s a perception that there is a risk to dealing with Canadian suppliers.

Did the recent port strike turn buyers elsewhere?

If you’re an international grain buyer, will you have the confidence to continue buying from Canada or will you choose another country whose ports are rated higher? 

Labour troubles at the port

I won’t harp on this too much, but I’m not a fan of unions. Yes, they have their place, but I do think some of the union clauses may be contributing to our inefficiencies. 

I’m all for safety and it’s a legitimate concern that rainy weather can increase the risk of falling and injuries for longshore workers – no one wants that. But, why on earth haven’t we figured out a way to load grain in the rain yet? It’s been an issue for years and in a city like Vancouver, where it rains at least 165 days a year (maybe more), this is a major issue that impacts the bottom line of farmers. 

Without getting too into the weeds on the specific labour issues, outsourced work and automation (fear of job losses) were two of the union’s biggest concerns. Again, I think the time has come to embrace technology in as many areas of the supply chain as possible. This is also what we must do in agriculture – every industry must adapt or it will be left behind.

We know that technology, automation, and even artificial intelligence could help here, so I’d encourage the Port Authorities to research, test and pilot some solutions in the very near future.

Prairie representation on the Port Authority Board

All of Canada’s ports are run by federal port authorities that fall under Transport Canada. Each of the 18 port authorities are governed by Boards of Directors – many members are appointed directly by the Minister of Transportation. Did you know the prairie provinces only have one representative each on the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Board? 

According to Premier Scott Moe, the western provinces make up 85 percent of the Port’s export value, but only have nine percent of the representation on the board. I think there need to be changes to the way board members are nominated and appointed to ensure better representation for our Prairie producers. 

Maybe if we have more prairie folks on the board, we can figure out a way to load grain in the rain?

We need long-term solutions 

Demand from Asian markets is strong and shows no signs of letting up. Canada has a huge opportunity to grow its agri-food and other commodity exports that contribute to our GDP. 

As I’ve stated, there are many issues plaguing the port and I encourage research and investment in areas of infrastructure, technical innovation and digitization as a way to improve capacity at our largest and busiest port. 

We need leadership here from our federal government and perhaps a shift in priorities. It may be time for the feds to deploy as much time and resources to review and, hopefully, correct the port issue versus the amount of time and energy currently being spent on ESG and climate. I am not saying those items are not important, however, this is a significant issue that needs to be urgently addressed. 

This recent labour dispute is the tip of the iceberg –  big problems persist at the Port of Vancouver and they’re too expensive to ignore.