City & Politics

Four things you (probably) should know about Manitoba’s economy

Every time the news cycle spits out updates on fledging economies in southern Europe, debt-ceiling wrangling in the United States’ Congress, or $50 an hour entry-level jobs on Alberta’s oil sands, Manitobans stare at the outside world from their nook in the heart of the continent and think, how do we fit into all of this? Well, that’s a tough question to answer if we don’t understand our own economic landscape. And how do we begin to understand that economic landscape, you ask? Through lists, of course! Because everyone loves lists. Because lists have numbers, and economics has numbers. Because lists make for nice organising tools when writers don’t have a sensible structure for their pieces. Because….okay, let’s just get into it.

1. Back in the day: The Union Jack and a bison walks into a bar..  

Manitoba’s most recognisable symbol drips with historical irony. The provincial flag sees a Union Jack hug its top left corner while a bison anchors its centre-bottom-right. The former is a constant reminder that, despite a vibrant francophone community, decades of immigration from all corners of the globe,  and, most importantly, centuries of indigenous history pre-European contact, modern Manitoba has Britain in its bones. In 1670, King Charles II gave the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly rights over  trade that occurred on land draining into Hudson Bay. This ‘drainage basin’ covered all of what would become Manitoba, and the Company’s trade in fur defined the economy for 200 years before Louis Riel had his little tiff with the federal government. The bison, on the other hand, is a poignant reminder of what went down in central North America before the Brits even knew of such a place, never mind having the gall to issue rights over its trade.

Before it become characterised by how much London would pay to clothe itself in beaver pelts, the economy of southern Manitoba-to-be revolved around the bison. Indigenous peoples would hunt them in the fall and spring to produce basic necessities and more. ‘Pemmican,’ a concoction of jerky, fat, and, if available, dried fruit, was made with the meat, while weapons, tools, tents, pouches, and clothing were made from the hides. The hunt patterns and product distribution among groups allowed for a sustainable economy (which was echoed by the self-sufficient Cree and Dene of northern Manitoba-to-be; they relied on elk, deer, fish and birds for their basic needs). This situation was thoroughly thrown out of whack when the supply and demand of European fashion trends began ruling the show.

2.The weird ‘n wonderful: Manitoba’s unexpected prowess

‘Friendly but not flashy’ is written all over this province’s identity. Its politics tend to be moderate, with parties from both sides of the spectrum moving happily to the centre post-election, preferring policy discussions to ideological debates. Its people tend to be polite, but not boisterous; welcoming, but not overly enthusiastic. Moments of ecstatic exuberance are thriftily saved for the first day of Spring, the return of sports franchises or, less flatteringly, the arrival of big American box stores. Nevertheless, Manitoba can’t be called mundane in relation to its economy.

Why not, you ask? The answer can be given in a hodgepodge of fun facts. See below for the sort of trivia that would surely pop up in a ‘toba-themed Who Wants to be a Millionaire:

  1. Manitoba is North America’s largest manufacturer of…wait for it….buses. That’s right, more elongated transportation devices are made here than anywhere else on the continent. Winnipeg is to buses what Detroit is to cars, with Motor Coach Industries and New Flyer playing the roles of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
  2. Maple Leaf Foods runs one of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated meat processing plants in Brandon. And people thought there’s nothing to do in Brandon!
  3. What is sleeker ‘n sexier than a thriving aerospace industry? Nothing. Nothing — except maybe a really sophisticated meat processing plant — is sleeker ‘n sexier than that. And Manitoba is Canada’s third-largest aerospace hub. That’s, like, right after first and second. Which is pretty high.
  4. The mining sector has struggled in Manitoba since the 1980s, but emerging markets throughout Asia, especially China, has kept the industry afloat. Afloat enough, at least, to support this province’s thriving nickel production, which is a quarter of the country’s total production. Who doesn’t love nickel? Everyone — except those horribly allergic to it — loves nickel.
  5. Surprise. That’s right, our economy has the element of surprise. Everyone outside Manitoba thinks we run an agriculturally-based, wheat ‘n corn-type province, but our economy does not hinge on any one industry or sector (see below), and within the agricultural arena it ain’t plants that take the spotlight; it’s pigs. Hogs make up almost a quarter of this sector. That means bacon not barley comes from most of our farms even while our farms do not define the economy. That’s like a surprise in a surprise. Surprise squared, if you will.


3. What Alberta doesn’t have: Volatility protection 

Manitoba’s greatest economic trait mirrors that characteristic its cultural landscape is so celebrated for: diversity. Diversity in the economy is the reason why most Manitobans had to read about the 2008 recession months before it really affected them, why pockets of the province wouldn’t even have known a recession was going on if they hadn’t been told, and why volatile swings in the business cycle don’t manifest in thousands of jobs lost, hundreds of homes deserted, or whole industries gutted. Simply put: this province has its hands in enough economic pockets to keep itself chugging along should some of those pockets develop holes.

As in much of North America, Manitoba has seen its agriculture and resource extraction sectors diminish in the last few decades of the 20th century. But while most other jurisdictions saw these areas suffer or even crumple, Manitoba has simply seen them slow down. Logging, hunting, fishing and mining declined  at an average rate of 3% annually, while agriculture saw its dominance recede to a steady annual growth of 1%. Thus they lost their spots on the starting line-up, but they certainly haven’t been relegated to the bench. They remained serious players even as manufacturing grew to become the largest sector in the province. And diversity stayed prominent throughout this change: while manufacturing accounts for roughly two-thirds of all exports, no single industry within the manufacturing sector exported as much as agriculture. This sort of splintering within manufacturing means that the tanking of one product does not mean the entire sector goes down. And even if it did, the economy likely won’t implode because other sectors — like agriculture — still hold a substantial share of export markets.

This province may not have the billions in liquid gold that keeps Alberta’s economy thriving (although our diversity does include a mini-oil patch), but the very fact that Manitoba does not rely on any one powerful commodity means that it is not vulnerable to the volatile price swings associated with that commodity, or any dynamics that negatively affect that one sector. If oil prices dive, resource extraction regulation changes, or certain controversial pipelines aren’t built when expected, the entire Albertan economy feels it. No single sector is able to affect all of Manitoba in a similar way.

4. Manitoba magic: Keeping the lights on  

One little puzzle that those fascinated with Manitoban identity still haven’t figured out is why the province’s ridiculous wealth in relatively clean energy hasn’t sparked some measure of swaggering self-confidence. Perhaps its because the rushing rivers from which Manitoba Hydro gleans its electricity is better suited to awe-filled appreciation, or because Manitobans prefer all sorts of cockiness to stay south of border (or in Toronto), or perhaps its because many do not know the deets.

Well, here they are. Manitoba keeps the lights on through its largest utility and Crown corporation, Manitoba Hydro. This corporation produces about 30 billion clean, renewable kilowatt-hours of electricity every year through its hydroelectric generating stations on the Laurie, Nelson, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg rivers. Now, even if the Jets had made the play-offs, and downtown bars, game-streaming basements, the MTS centre, etc. had every sort of everything plugged in and turned on, we would not need that much power. In fact, we only need about two-thirds of it. The rest — and by the rest I mean the sort of export sales that total around $363 million (as it did in 2011-12) — is sent outta our borders. Just over five billion dollars worth of electricity has been exported out of ‘toba since 2003, and Manitoba Hydro predicts total export sales to be around $16 billion over the next two decades, and about $29 billion over the next three. Almost ninety percent of those exports went to the United States.

Looking at such figures, it’s little wonder that organised interests in the know, from businesses to political parties, go ga-ga over the potential of energy exports. Thankfully, whether the debate is about privatising Manitoba Hydro or keeping it public, expanding potential markets, capitalising on the clean energy discourse, or even response to power outage times, Manitobans have benefitted in one crucial way: the massive supply of electrical power has allowed us to pay among the lowest rates in the world.

This list of four, a trilogy plus one if you will, is far from complete. Many other factors, from what free trade has meant for Manitoba, why our unemployment rate remains relatively low, the millions we still need from the feds to buttress our budget, why immigrants within a certain earnings bracket prefer specific pockets in the province,  what varying rates of property taxes have meant for different regions, the dynamics between the City of Winnipeg and the  Province, and much more, deserves greater attention. But lists such as these can be a start. They can remind us that a.) to understand the global we gotta check out the local, and b.) we might be more interesting than we think.


Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at