Yesterday, while sitting in the front seat of the car consulting her BlackBerry, my daughter made the following observation on the state of the Canadian economy.
I used to have 170 contacts on my BBM directory. I now have 37. I expect that to be down to 20 within months.
At first, I viewed this to be just another salvo in the ongoing campaign to dump the BlackBerry for an iPhone at the end of an interminable contract from one of our noncompetitive telcoms, but sadly it was not. It was just what it was. A statement of fact.
I’m talking to a digital specialist, who, along with most of her friends, assemble databases the size of small countries without breaking a sweat. She is 15.
I have been fighting a rearguard action on behalf of BlackBerry for months. Her position is unequivocal, “The BlackBerry sucks.” Occasionally, if she has time, she will establish the point with a brief demo.
I believe it to be true that if a disinterested party, not on the payroll of the City of Montreal, were to join us at the breakfast table, they would take her side. It does suck.
I know it sucks. If I need to Google something to prove a point at a dinner party, I need to send the proof by email the next day. If I forget my charger for the day ... well, you know the story.
My shaky position is the following. We are Canadian. We invented the bloody smart phone. Yes, we fell asleep while one of the owners decided it was more fun to buy a hockey team, which he pursued with the same hubris and arrogance that caused him to blow his business (and, to be fair, probably build his business), but he is gone now and cannot afford to buy a hockey team anymore, even in Phoenix.
He has paid the price and so might many more Canadians employed there if they don’t bounce back.
A world player like BlackBerry builds an ecosystem of suppliers, thinkers, doers, decision-makers, angel investors, philanthropists and most importantly swagger people.
People with too much money spill it in wonderfully eccentric ways and some of it almost always sticks. Look at the names on the side of hospitals and universities in our major cities.
Do you see the name of Daniel Akerson, the chairman of General Motors, or Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric? No. You see Peter Munk from Barrick Gold or Ken Thomson (son of Roy, father of David) which begat Thomson Reuters, which begat the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.
Look at the recent phenomenal investments of Stan Bharti and Ned Goodman in Laurentian University. Do you think the owners of Kennecott Utah Copper are lining up to invest in Northern Ontario universities?
Companies like BlackBerry and the dearly departed Nortel and Inco and Alcan are precious. They build wealth. They share wealth. They underwrite a culture, a place, a purpose. To be nonchalant about their demise or hollowing out is suicidal.
We take pride in our banking system which survived the recession more adequately than any other jurisdiction. Is that an accident? No. It was deliberate. Deliberate oversight and regulation and a deliberate decision to maintain Canadian ownership. No one can own more than 20 per cent of our schedule A banks. If we were as nonchalant about the financial sector as we are about the rest of our economy, these banks would have been owned by American banks which had to be bailed out in the recession. They would have started by stripping their Canadian operations of all decision making if they hadn’t done it already.
The point here is not to hold my daughter accountable for the future of the Canadian economy ... and it most assuredly is not to wish BlackBerry success with inferior technology.
It is, however, important to remember we are lucky for the most part, not smart. We have a small population, dining out on a huge land mass that is full of riches we seem prepared to squander without demanding sustainability for our children.
The current federal administration is prepared to do anything to ship oil. It seems committed to little else. This is not a sustainable economy. Alberta is all but broke because they are addicted to resource revenues.
A powerful cluster of mining solution companies in Northern Ontario exporting to the world is a sustainable notion. A worldwide autoparts company (Magna) is a sustainable strategy and a smart phone company with more than 80 million users around the world at least puts the power of success in our hands, not someone else’s.
Blackberry is a symbol. Soon, we shall see what it is a symbol for. Either way, I’ll have mine. I’m proud of them and I’m told the new ones don’t suck, which is bonus.
Michael Atkins is the president of Northern Life.