Canada’s 150 Birthday: Celebrating Canadian Exporting

Victor Lotto, 82, remembers using a Telex machine to send messages from Beirut, Lebanon, to business contacts in Canada during his first foreign posting with the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) in the early 1960s.
“That was our main tool of communication. We did not have the advantage of the technology we have now,” says Lotto of the bulky, noisy network of tele-printers that spewed out text messages on long rolls of paper. “We thought things were pretty good with our electric typewriters.”
Lotto was posted in 1963 as junior trade commissioner in Beirut, responsible for trade throughout most of the Middle East. By the time Lotto retired in 1997, trade commissioners and their contacts all over the world could connect instantaneously using computers and electronic mail.
“As trade commissioners we had to cover a lot of ground—we didn’t have as many embassies in the region as we have today. The exporting community was much smaller—we did not have the diversity of manufacturing and the diversity in general that we have now.”
Canada is a nation built on trade, with a history of global commerce that began long before Confederation on July 1, 1867, when it became the Dominion of Canada 150 years ago. From fish and beaver pelts to wheat and lumber, to mining equipment, medical breakthroughs, services, investments and information and communications technology, Canada has given much to the world. The trade commissioners who helped get Canadian goods into global hands have also given something of which to be proud.
There is greater diversity in Canada’s exports now more than ever before—and greater diversity amongst the Canadians who export, say retired members of the TCS whose careers began as Canada approached its last milestone birthday when it turned 100 years old in 1967. There are noticeably more small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) exporting now than there were 50 years ago, and more exports of services such as consulting and education. As well, free trade agreements, increased two-way foreign investment, global value chains, the Age of Information, high-technology and innovation partnerships have changed the global trade landscape.
Within that changing world, the TCS approach to promoting Canada as a global business partner has been extremely successful, says Ted Gibson, 79, a retired trade commissioner and later ambassador whose career spanned 35 years and five continents. Building relationships with people—both with companies in Canada and with contacts in foreign markets—are crucial, says Gibson, who joined the TCS in 1962.
“We had a year of training in Ottawa and the key thing was a tour of Canada to visit industries, provincial and municipal offices and chambers of commerce. You really got to know your country that way which makes sense because essentially we were going to promote Canada,” says Gibson.
“There were 16 of us that year, all men—I don’t think they recruited women until the late 1960s, and there were very few women exporters doing business in the Middle East back then,” says Lotto, who also joined the TCS in 1962.
Canada’s main exports to the Middle East at that time were wheat and barley. There were few manufactured goods being sold to the area except for in Saudi Arabia where oil equipment and consulting services had taken off as key Canadian exports.
“We saw Canadian consultants get a very strong foothold in the area and we helped them find opportunities—we brought word back to Canada,” Lotto says, adding that consulting services remains a successful export sector today. “One thing that hasn’t changed—they were looking for contacts and contacts are a question of good relations and I think that’s still the case today.”
Lotto agrees with his friend Gibson, who says getting to know both Canadian clients and contacts in the foreign markets is crucial in helping companies succeed. Visits to Canadian companies were introduced as part of trade commissioner training in 1916. Today, trade commissioners across Canada still visit Canadian companies to get to know their clients better.
Lotto had also accompanied heads of foreign companies across Canada and those contacts proved valuable to him in the Middle East. One contact, a man from Saudi Arabia, picked him up at the airport during Lotto’s first visit as a trade commissioner there and introduced him to members of the local chamber of commerce which greatly helped Lotto establish contacts in that country.
The TCS has a long history of helping Canadians succeed in foreign markets. It was officially established in 1894, when an order-in-council authorized the Department of Trade and Commerce to appoint commercial agents in foreign countries and colonies. That year, John Larke sailed to Australia (arriving in early 1895) to represent Canada as a commercial agent in Sydney. Today the TCS is on-the-ground in more than 160 cities in Canada and worldwide to help Canadian businesses succeed in world markets. It has evolved into a network of more than 900 Trade Commissioners serving close to 16,000 business clients.
It can be “a little unnerving” to leave everything behind and move to an unfamiliar place, says Lotto, who had previously spent some time teaching in London, England. Newly-married to his wife, Nicky, when they moved to Beirut, Lotto recalls having to “find accommodation, and scout around” for used furniture and appliances. “At that point we trade commissioners were regarded sort of like the old cliché of a traveling salesman in a plaid suit,” says Lotto who chose to work on the trade side because of his degree in economic history.
At that time, the Department of Trade and Commerce was separate from the Department of External Affairs, but offices abroad were co-located. The departments were merged in 1982. That gave trade commissioners more opportunities to expand their careers and Canada benefitted from having those with trade backgrounds take on more prominent roles, says Lotto, whose last posting abroad was as Ambassador to Venezuela in the mid‑1980s.
By the time Lotto retired in 1997, things had changed quite a bit, he adds. For example, as the director general responsible for Information Systems in the late 1980s, Lotto worked with technicians who were setting up an internal software program throughout now called Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and in Canada’s embassies and consulates around the world, establishing an efficient and instantaneous connection amongst trade commissioners and the GAC network. “It seems normal now, but when you think about it, that was quite the change,” Lotto says, adding one thing that did not change is that relationships with people are as important today as they were 50 or 150 years ago. “That’s still the very key thing today, and as much as we talk about advanced technology and great communications tools it’s still about getting to know the culture and the business culture of the places where we’re serving, and it’s about establishing good contacts and good relationships there. That is the best way we can help exporters who haven’t had that opportunity.”
Gibson’s first posting was to Mexico City from 1963-1966. Newly-married, the Hamilton, Ont.-born Gibson left for Mexico with his wife, Jayne. He began learning about the local culture and business culture immediately; his first task was going out to update a list of contacts for Canadian companies and meeting the representatives in the process.
“When I started out we were even more resources-based exported-oriented than we are today, of course, but we were seeing a healthy growth in the Canadian manufacturing industry and our range of Canadian clients—exporters broadened considerably,” recalls Gibson. At the time, Mexico was buying rails for railways from Nova Scotia, locomotives from Montreal and opportunities in mining equipment and consulting were picking up steam, he adds.
The value provided by TCS officers in gathering market intelligence did not go unnoticed, says Gibson, explaining that in the 1960s mainstream Canadian newspapers would re-publish some of the articles penned by trade commissioners for the now-defunct publication Foreign Trade. Writing articles, and providing market intelligence and information on sector opportunities was part of the job. The articles were published weeks later after being air-mailed to the editor in Ottawa.
“Of course things are different now, in the “Age of Information,” but one thing that didn’t change is that to me, the role of the trade commissioner is to promote Canada and to do that you need to get to know your market and get a sense of what the local people are thinking,” says Gibson who has a degree in political science. Gibson says that as a Foreign Service officer he chose to work on the trade side of things because: “I felt my background was more focussed on the economic side and really because I wanted to work with the private sector—I like dealing with people.”
“One of the greater advantages of modernization and of the Information Age is that Canadians have become more comfortable with spending time abroad and doing business abroad. I think Canadians are very good at the things we do. So it’s a matter of gathering up your courage and saying: ‘I’m going to try to do business in such-and-such a place,’ then following-up on leads and going for it,” Gibson says.
“Doing business abroad can be more expensive than doing business in Canada so you have to make very careful decisions,” says Gibson, adding that’s where the TCS can help.
Insights from trade commissioners, who know a market well, can help companies perfect their international business strategy, assess their market potential, resolve problems and make more informed business decisions. The TCS can help reduce the costs and the risks of international business.
“I think people are more confident now than they were years ago when I started,” says Gibson. He has also held postings in Australia, Pakistan, Venezuela, and the Netherlands. He served as Canada’s ambassador to Colombia from 1983 to 1987 and Consul General in Dallas, Texas from 1992 prior to his retirement in 1997. It is the type of career that shapes a family, says Gibson, whose first daughter was born in Mexico, the second in Pakistan and the third in Ottawa. Gibson’s second-born daughter has followed in his footsteps and currently works for Global Affairs Canada.
Building and maintaining solid relationships with contacts in foreign markets is essential, he says. “Latin America for example, is a place with considerable opportunities but you really have to develop relationships on a long-term basis. Once you have that relationship it’s very unlikely to be broken.”
Sometimes helping clients can mean many unexpected tasks, says Lotto who recalls having to find a flight home for one company representative who experienced such strong culture shock he refused to leave his hotel room or eat anything other than bananas. He also helped Haitian asylum seekers in Venezuela.
“I have absolutely no regrets,” says Lotto who held posts in India, Italy, Brazil, and Detroit in the mid-1960s. “That was an interesting time because it was the start of the Auto Pact (the Canada—United States Automotive Products Agreement) for American manufacturers to use Canadian parts, so I travelled a lot through the United States.”
Lotto even did a stint working for Labatt Breweries of Canada in an exchange program with the private sector. After his retirement he went on to teach international business at the University of Victoria. There has been an increase in teaching international business in Canadian institutions over the past few decades, Lotto says.
“Another thing I saw blossom is Canada’s education sector—years ago we had some students from Hong Kong come to study here, now there are a multitude of international students from many places.”
Gibson and Lotto and, Marc Faguy—a lawyer and also a retired trade commissioner—continue to maintain a strong friendship with each other and with the other nine surviving trade commissioners of the 16 who joined in 1962. The group meet for reunions periodically, and gathered earlier this year by Lake Simcoe, Ont., close to Toronto. The three friends have much in common: all three spent time in London, England prior to joining the TCS; all three were newly-married when they headed off to their first postings, and all three have children who were born abroad.
Faguy, who was born in Quebec City, moved to Brussels in 1963 with his wife, Jennifer, for his first posting. It was an interesting time to be in Europe, he says, a time when European economies were still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, and the European Common market—a pre-cursor to the modern-day European Union—was gaining momentum.
“I was taking great interest in what was happening throughout Europe, and in developments with the Common Market. Our relationship with Belgium was excellent. Much was happening on the investment side,” says Faguy, now 81. He recalls there was much Belgian business interest in the chemicals industry.
“We’ve come a long way in our relationship with Europe,” says Faguy, pointing to the recently concluded Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). He spent most of the sixties in Europe when, after three years in Brussels, he was posted in 1968 as the Canadian trade committee representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
“Nineteen-sixty-eight was both an exciting and troubled year in Europe and in many other countries, including Canada and the United States with student street protests,” Faguy says. He also recalls a budding preoccupation with climate change and predictions of an oil shortage. “But great ideas were also fermenting the same year within the OECD, in particular the setting up by developed countries of an Agreement on Preferential Tariffs for developing countries.”
Back in Ottawa, Faguy went to work for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as director of financial institutions where major efforts were being made to provide financing and investment to developing countries. He also served as Canada’s High Commissioner to Ghana and later Ambassador to Cameroon. CIDA merged with Global Affairs Canada in 2013.
Canada’s approach to global trade has certainly changed during the time Faguy, Gibson and Lotto served as trade commissioners. They take pride in their role in helping Canada succeed on the world stage.
Indeed, Canada’s trade relationship with the world has changed considerably since Confederation and prior to that. In the early 1500s some of Canada’s Indigenous peoples exchanged furs and fresh meat for metal and cloth goods from the Europeans who came to fish on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence (as outlined in a Historica Canada article by historians William John Eccles and John E. Foster). The Europeans, who needed several weeks to dry their fish onshore before transporting it to sell in Europe, benefitted from maintaining good relations with the Indigenous peoples and found an eager and profitable market in Europe for the furs. The demand in Europe for fur increased, and the fur-trade thrived until the mid‑19th century.
“Sustained primarily by the trapping of beavers to satisfy the European demand for felt hats, the intensely competitive trade opened the continent to exploration and settlement, financed missionary work, established social, economic and colonial relationships between Europeans and Indigenous people, and played a formative role in the creation of Canada,” the article states, outlining that the French established settlements in what’s now Canada as part of efforts to maintain the fur trade.
“The French forged alliances of kinship and trade with the Huron‑Wendat, Algonquin and Innu. These peoples helped the French to collect and process beaver furs, and distribute them to other Indigenous groups throughout their vast trade network, which was established well before the arrival of Europeans to North America.”
Confederation in 1867 launched an era of transition for Canada’s trade and external relations, wrote historians R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith in their book entitled Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation. Until then, trade had been mainly with Europe, but just prior to Confederation the United States was emerging as a key partner. Industrialization had begun and “specialization had begun in Canadian shops and factories in the large urban centres of Montreal, Toronto, Quebec, Hamilton, Saint John and Halifax,” they wrote.
The TCS finds its roots just after Confederation. In the early 1870s and 1880s, the Canadian government sent representatives to various parts of the world to discover new markets for its raw materials such as fish, lumber and other natural resources. By the 1880s, the Canadian government also realized it could not rely on British commercial agents to “promote Canada’s trade position and advise Canadian businesses,” states an article entitled Canada’s Ambassadors to the World: History of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. The article was published in The Archivist for the TCS centennial anniversary in 1994.
“The Canadian government realized soon after Confederation that it needed not only its specialized trade missions, but also Canadian commercial agents posted throughout the world to promote Canadian trade abroad and to increase Canada’s position in world markets,” states the article.
In 1889 the Department of Finance began to help Canadians market their products abroad by issuing a Commercial Bulletin, former Foreign Trade editor O. Mary Hill wrote in her book entitled Canada’s Salesman to the World, the Department of Trade and Commerce 1892‑1939.An Act forming the Department of Trade and Commerce was proclaimed in 1892. Throughout the 1890s Canadian commercial agents were found in London, Paris, Japan, Australia, parts of Latin America and later throughout most of Europe. Only those in England and France were full-time government employees. “The remainder were Canadian businessmen who, in promoting Canadian products, were paid an honorarium of $250 per year,” states the article. After 1990 the practice of relying on private citizens was discontinued and the term “commercial agent” was replaced with “trade commissioner.”
For Faguy, Gibson and Lotto contributing to Canada’s global success as part of the TCS will forever remain a source of pride. They are looking forward to the next reunion of their group of trade commissioners, when tales of trade promotion past and the “good old days” overseas will fill the room once more.