Declaring herself “your Chief Marketing Officer” to a crowd of Waterloo Region entrepreneurs, Canada’s new Minister of International Trade today unveiled a $50-million program to help small and medium-sized businesses boost their sales abroad.

Making the first trade-promotion announcement of the two-month-old Trudeau government, Chrystia Freeland chose the Communitech Hub to launch CanExport, a five-year program that will match eligible companies’ export-development expenses with grants of $10,000 to $100,000.

The program, to be delivered by the Trade Commissioner Service in partnership with the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), went into effect as Freeland spoke at the midday event. The minister added a promise to get back to companies with an answer within 25 days of applying for funds.

“Something I want to say to all the small businesses here is, I am your Chief Marketing Officer,” Freeland told a crowd dotted with entrepreneurs, area politicians and other dignitaries. “My job is to help every company in Canada export its services and its goods.”

(From left to right) Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade; Brian Zubert, Director, Thomson Reuters Labs at the Communitech Hub; Raj Saini, Kitchener Centre MP; Bryan May, Cambridge MP; Bardish Chagger, Kitchener-Waterloo MP and Minister of Small Business and Tourism, Jan. 5, 2016. Communitech Photo: Phil Froklage

(From left to right) Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade; Brian Zubert, Director, Thomson Reuters Labs at the Communitech Hub; Raj Saini, Kitchener Centre MP; Bryan May, Cambridge MP; Bardish Chagger, Kitchener-Waterloo MP and Minister of Small Business and Tourism, Jan. 5, 2016. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Given its relatively small domestic market, Canada’s economy ranks 11th globally, which underscores the importance of exports to its small and medium-sized businesses. Those companies provide close to 90 per cent of the country’s private-sector jobs, said Kitchener-Waterloo MP Bardish Chagger, the Minister of Small Business and Tourism, who accompanied Freeland at the announcement.

To be eligible for CanExport funds, companies must have fewer than 250 employees, and revenues in Canada between $200,000 and $50 million. The grants are aimed at all exporters and not specifically tech companies, though in announcing the program at Communitech, Freeland was acknowledging the crucial role exports play in helping innovation-based businesses to scale quickly.

“The companies who we really want to help are exactly the kind of companies who are incubating here at Communitech; who are just getting started,” she said, adding “. . . we have to go global really, really fast in order to succeed.”

Ryan van Stralen, Head of Marketing and Community Relations at Palette Gear, a hardware startup housed in the University of Waterloo Velocity Garage, applauded the new program.

“It’s fantastic to see that, even at an early stage, our government is reacting to the startup community with an eye to accelerating our export businesses and creating more jobs in Canada,” van Stralen said.

Ryan van Stralen, Head of Marketing and Community Relations at Palette Gear, speaks to Ministers Chrystia Freeland and Bardish Chagger at the Velocity Garage, Jan. 5, 2016. Communitech Photo: Phil Froklage.

Ryan van Stralen, Head of Marketing and Community Relations at Palette Gear, speaks to Ministers Chrystia Freeland and Bardish Chagger at the Velocity Garage, Jan. 5, 2016. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Freeland urged entrepreneurs to take advantage of the new program as well as other federal resources, such as the Trade Commissioner Service, to help them sell into foreign markets.

“I want you to call up your local trade commissioners,” she said. “Whether they’re the ones who are in Canada or the ones around the world, get them to help you out. They will make that money go even further.”

Since it took office in November, the Trudeau government has been fielding frequent calls from Canadian innovation leaders on the need to refine federal policies to help companies compete globally. Freeland and Chagger, along with their cabinet colleague Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, met in Toronto recently with former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie and other tech leaders, where these issues were discussed.

Asked how her government planned to address them, Freeland emphasized that she and her colleagues are currently in “consultation mode,” gathering feedback to help inform any potential policy moves.

“We’ve been in government, as of today, for just two months, and so we’re working on how we help Canadian innovators to succeed, and part of that work is talking to them,” Freeland said in an interview with Communitech News.

“I think what entrepreneurs in Kitchener and everywhere in Canada should know is that their federal government is their champion. We really understand, in a visceral way, how important new business creation is to the country. We want to see 1,000 flowers blooming, and we also understand how important it is to encourage businesses to become Canadian global champions.”