Which Provinces are Punching Above Their Weight in Export Sales?

05/14/2013 by Alex Carrick

While Canada has a vibrant and growing services sector, the nation’s economic success is still closely aligned with export sales of both raw materials and manufactured goods.

It’s interesting to consider which regions of the country are faring best in merchandise trade.

To use boxing terms – since it really is a “blood sport” to compete in the world marketplace these days – some provinces are punching above their weight, while others are on the ropes.

The table below sets out provincial and regional shares of Canada’s total population side-by-side with their contributions to total exports and the six largest foreign-sales sub-categories.

The population information is as of January 1, 2013 and the trade data is through the first quarter of this year.  

The shares of total exports taken by the Atlantic Region, Ontario and Manitoba are approximately commensurate with their population shares.

The Atlantic Region is almost an exact match, accounting for 6.5% of total exports and 6.7% of the nation’s population. Ontario (37.1% versus 38.8%) and Manitoba (2.6% versus 3.6%) also have good balance. 

B.C. and Quebec aren’t keeping up. The former, with a population share of 13.2%, is accounting for only 7.4% of total exports. Quebec, with almost one-quarter (23.1%) of Canada’s population, has only a 14.4% share of total exports.

That leaves Alberta and Saskatchewan as the heavyweight and middleweight champions respectively. Both are taking export slices that are more than double their population proportions.

In Alberta’s case, it’s 23.7% versus 11.2% and in Saskatchewan’s, 8.1% compared with 3.1%.

Of course, our various provinces and regions have varying degrees of success in different export product categories. In what follows, keep in mind that energy exports are most important (26.5% of the total), followed by metals and minerals (16.6%), vehicles and parts (14.0%) and consumer goods (9.6%).

The “forestry products” (7.2%) and “aerospace and other transportation equipment” sectors (3.2%) are smaller factors in our foreign trade dealings.

Let’s look at the six major export sub-categories, beginning with energy. Alberta (64.9%), with nearly two-thirds of the total, is clearly the giant. Second-place Saskatchewan (11.8%) is well back. The Atlantic Region (11.0%) is in third place.

It’s perhaps surprising that energy exports from the Atlantic Region are about evenly split between Newfoundland and Labrador (5.9%), thanks to offshore oil platforms, and New Brunswick (5.1%), home to major fossil fuel refining facilities in Saint John.  

In the metals and minerals category, Ontario is half the total at 49.8% and Quebec follows with 21.9%. Saskatchewan, with a helping hand from potash sales, is also prominent in this sub-sector at 10.3%.

B.C. has an illustrious history in mining, punctuated from time to time by penny stock scandals. The province has historically been a major provider of precious and base metals. Its current 7.8% share is almost certainly short of what it should be.

In the auto sector, the headline story features the dominance of Ontario (92.6%). That’s more than nine out of every 10 dollars made from Canadian export sales. Second-place Quebec (3.6%) isn’t even close enough to develop a cough from its neighbour’s exhaust.

Ontario is also strong in consumer goods (49.5%), but Quebec figures prominently as well (23.2%).  The other five major regions (not counting the territories) all have shares that range from 5.0% for the Atlantic to 6.3% for Alberta.

There’s one sub-category where B.C. does shine, forestry product exports. Over one-third (34.9%) of Canada’s total exports of timber, sawmill products and pulp and paper are harvested on the Pacific Coast.

Quebec (26.8%), at more than one-quarter of the total, is also a major player in lumber and other forestry product exports. Ontario (18.4%) ranks third, Alberta (9.3%) fourth and the Atlantic Region (7.1%), fifth.

In the “aerospace and other transportation equipment” category (i.e., other than motor vehicles), Quebec (64.3%) is the front-runner. Ontario (24.1%) makes a more than respectable showing in second position. 

To understand why this analysis of export sales is so important, one only has to look at where the top labour markets in the country are currently located.  

CanaData/Reed Construction Data ranks the nation’s 33 most-populous urban centres according to an index that combines year-over-year employment growth (fastest to slowest) and the latest unemployment rate (lowest to highest).

According to this measure, the top four labour markets in the country (based on April’s results) are Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary. Those four cities are situated in only two provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Is there a common thread? The answer is an emphatic, “Yes.” Both provinces are resource rich and their economies are foreign trade juggernauts.  

The next three cities in the labour market ranking are all provincial capitals – Winnipeg, Quebec City and Halifax – indicating that a strong government presence is also good for employment.

Edmonton is in both camps. It’s a government “town”, plus it has close ties with more northerly export-oriented energy projects.

Provincial and Regional Shares of National Total Goods Exports
(First Quarter 2013)
  Population TOTAL
Atlantic 6.7% 6.5% 11.0% 4.1% 7.1% 1.8% 1.8% 5.0%
Quebec 23.1% 14.4% 3.3% 21.9% 26.8% 3.6% 64.3% 23.2%
Ontario 38.8% 37.1% 1.6% 49.8% 18.4% 92.6% 24.1% 49.5%
Manitoba 3.6% 2.6% 0.9% 2.0% 1.4% 1.0% 4.1% 5.1%
Sask.  3.1% 8.1% 11.8% 10.3% 2.1% 0.1% 0.1% 5.5%
Alberta 11.2% 23.7% 64.9% 2.7% 9.3% 0.3% 2.7% 6.3%
B.C.  13.2% 7.4% 6.5% 7.8% 34.9% 0.6% 2.9% 5.4%
Territories 0.3% 0.2% 0.0% 1.4% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
  100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Data source: statistics Canada ("customs basis"); Table: CanaData - Reed Construction Data.