Local business owner Charles discusses economy with PM Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper called on Abbotsford business owner Gerri Charles to participate in an economic roundtable on Friday.

Gerri Charles

Gerri Charles

Gerri Charles can’t help but chuckle about how she almost missed out on an opportunity to talk economics with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

On Wednesday, Charles – owner of Abbotsford bridal shop Champagne and Lace – received an email from the Prime Minister’s office inviting her to an “economic consultation” in Langley on Friday.

There was no mention in the email that Harper would be in attendance, and besides, Charles already had a busy afternoon lined up, buying stock for the fall season. So she declined.

“I assumed it would be a room full of people talking about what we want from the government and banging our fists,” she explained. “But somebody from the PM’s office called and talked to my manager and said, ‘Uh, are you sure?'”

Upon hearing that she and six other Fraser Valley businesspeople were being given a chance to sit down with Harper and air their economic concerns, Charles quickly responded to the affirmative.

“But even driving down there yesterday, I still thought I was being punked.”

As it turned out, everything was on the up-and-up.

Christi Hunniford and Curtis Stratuliak, owners of Hunni’s Urban Boutique in Langley, hosted the event. Also in attendance were Satya Bernhausen of Langley’s Bernhausen Specialty Automotive, Anita Huberman, the CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, Soon Kim of the Abbotsford-based Newgen Group of Companies, and Eric Hou of Aldergrove’s Asia Pacific Farms.

The federal government contingent included Harper, Langley MP Mark Warawa and MP James Moore, the minister of Canadian Heritage and official languages.

Each local stakeholder was given roughly 12 minutes to discuss their most pressing economic concerns.

Charles raised an issue that’s more pronounced in border towns like Abbotsford – the difficulty of competing against American businesses which pay lower duty on imported products.

She pays 20 per cent duty on clothing coming in from China, for instance, while her U.S. counterparts pay six per cent. It’s exceedingly difficult to compete given those constraints.

“Retailers are losing credibility in this country because the consumer has the sense that we’re just gouging them, and for some magical reason it’s cheaper in the States,” she said. “It’s no magic. It’s tariffs.

“We have to really think about the long-term cost of having all those dollars leak to the States. Because once that dollar goes across the line, we will never see it again. The Americans don’t come up here to buy.”

In response to Charles’s request for duty parity, Harper wondered whether Canadian businesses would pass the savings on to the consumer or whether they’d pocket the margin. Charles assured him they’d reduce their prices in order to compete.

“I said to him, ‘I promise you that all we want is parity, and we would charge the same price (as American stores).’ And the consumer would get good value.'”

Charles also encouraged the PM to find innovative ways to educate the Canadian public about how shopping north of the border strengthens the nation as a whole.

“I believe there has to be a cool way to use celebrities – let’s pretend Justin Bieber, with social media or whatever – and they message something about the cool part of shopping at home,” she said. “When I spend my money in Canada, I’m making Canada stronger.”

Charles isn’t sure how she was selected for the event, but she called it “an amazing experience.”

“It was an honour, and it was very validating,” she said. “Any one of my peers in business could have been chosen, and I hope I did them well by giving them a voice.

“In my little corner of the world, it was good to feel our government was listening. Sometimes I think we feel a little removed on the West Coast, and that the heartbeat is in the middle of Canada. They were here to have a serious and respectful dialogue, and I hope it goes somewhere.”