Photo: FranckReporter

We've been as busy as beavers! As mighty as our natural resources are, David Cravit argues that it's our country's innovative products and companies that have put Brand Canada on the map.

Hewers of wood. Drawers of water. Branch-plant economy.

That's always been the knock against Canada. Blessed with almost unlimited natural resources that we can just reach out and dig up, pump or harvest, we've never had to develop a risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit. As a result, we've been laggards when it comes to innovation. We don't develop new products. We don't start world-class businesses. We leave all that to others—especially the Americans.

So goes the story—but it's a myth. And perhaps there's no better time to recognize it—and to put forward the much more exciting reality—than right now as we celebrate Canada's 150th birthday. The truth is that an astonishingly high number of world-renowned products have been invented or developed in Canada. And that many Canadian companies have achieved world status. And that the future is bright: Canada has one of the highest rates of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world.

Three bold assertions, especially considering how prevalent the opposite view has been. As Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz said in the annual Benefactors' Lecture to the C.D. Howe Institute this past November, "We have been much more than hewers of wood and drawers of water for a long time, yet the cliché lives on."

A critic could ask, "What about companies?" The question goes to another knock against Canada: maybe we can develop a one-shot product here and there, but can we create entire businesses capable of world-scale competitiveness?

To be fair, we often don't retain the ownership of our most successful giants. But we do have an impressive track record of starting up and building companies that produced goods that have changed the world.

It's only fitting, given that our first brand, the Hudson's Bay Company, was incorporated in 1670 and controlled the fur trade in North America for centuries, even functioning as a quasi-government over the most remote parts of the continent. The Hudson's Bay Company actually helped create Canada as we know it today when most of its territory was transferred to the Crown, leading journalist and author Peter C. Newman to dub it "the company that became a nation."

Another name embedded in the Canadian story is Massey-Harris.While the Massey name is synonymous with public service and philanthropy—for instance, they built and donated Massey Hall, Toronto's historic concert venue—Massey-Harris was started in 1847 in Newcastle, Ont., producing some of the world's first threshing machines and reapers and, in 1938, developed the world's first self-propelled combine, revolutionizing farming production on a global scale.

Other great Canadian companies have a more modern trajectory. Take BlackBerry founded as Research In Motion, in Waterloo, Ont., in 1984. The company was one of the first wireless data technology developers in North America and within 10 years, had a global user base approaching 40 million customers. Then, the 2002 handheld device with phone capabilities—sometimes referred to as a "crackberry" to signify users' non-stop reliance on the device (like U.S. President Barack Obama)—took off. However, the 2007 launch of what BlackBerry then considered an upstart, the iPhone, eroded its cachet to the little the company has today. Despite what the markets and the cool kids say, BlackBerry is still rich with patents and no doubt started the mobile revolution that has transformed communications in our time.

And who would have thought that MAC Cosmetics, an insider line, whipped up by makeup artist and photographer Frank Toskan and salon owner Frank Angelo in their Toronto kitchen, would end up on the vanguard of gender identity, gay rights and AIDS research.

The black-clad MAC cosmetic counter staff with their individualistic hair and makeup expressions, the more avant-garde the better, reflected the company's refusal to conform to the mainstream like other brands. It was also an early proponent of shades for all skin tones and proved, for better or for worse—and, in this case, better—that progressive values can be economically viable. This, decades before the "resist" fashion and beauty regularly marketed today.

Inspiring stories, no doubt. But that only leads to our third question: what's next? In this dizzying high-tech world, can Canada really keep pace? Where is the next generation of innovation coming from?

On this front, the news is good. And there is a surprising twist—the older generation is playing a big role. Let's take a closer look.

Next: The new innovators 

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