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Former Industry Minister Jim Prentice, now CIBC's vice-chair, is photographed at The Globe and Mail on March 1, 2012. He had been speaking about "The economic benefits of nation building infrastructure investment across Canada; the challenges to Canadian manufacturing of a high Canadian dollar; and how the nation can navigate a way forward."(Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Canada's economy is on the brink of transformation, and Ontario's manufacturing base could benefit from the spin-offs of oil sands development and major infrastructure projects across the country, a prominent bank official said Thursday.

Almost $290-billion in infrastructure investments is expected over the next two decades – a scale bigger than any other G8 country, estimates Jim Prentice, vice-chairman of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

These range from the Lower Churchill project in Newfoundland to Manitoba's Connawappa project, Alberta's oil sands expansion and the Site C hydro project in British Columbia.

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This flurry of activity is not a regional story, but a national one, he said. "This list represents a national opportunity to develop our resources, create jobs, strengthen our manufacturing sector and build on the strengths of our financial community," said the former Conservative minister in a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

The projected activity could be enough to revive Ontario manufacturing, which has seen a dramatic erosion over the last decade in tandem with a strengthening dollar , he said. Factory output in the province has dwindled to 15 per cent of gross domestic product, from 20 per cent a decade ago, while real GDP growth in the province has trailed the rest of the country for the past nine straight years.

"Who is better able to manufacture the steam generators, the turbines and the electronics than workers in this province?" he said.

He called for a "well-articulated" industrial policy, at the national and provincial levels, to champion manufacturing, one that promotes education and training, science and technology and focuses on the skills of new immigrants.

"Canada must have a strong industrial heartland and excel at manufacturing and governments have a real role to play in making that happen," he said.

At a Globe and Mail editorial board meeting Thursday morning he said Canada should not "give up" on developing a high-value added manufacturing base.

The ideas face challenges – for now, much heavy equipment used in Alberta's oil sands is not made in Canada. And thus far, unlike the Obama administration south of the border, Canada's federal government has said little about a national manufacturing strategy.

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Mr. Prentice sees potential for massive new hydro-electric projects, and said the development of oil and gas corridors to the Pacific Ocean is so important it should be considered Canada's national interest.

Governments have a key role to play in showing leadership on economic strategy, he said. "To prosper in the global marketplace, Canada needs to fight to win," he said. "We can't be Boy Scouts."

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