Representing Canadian Freight Forwarders

The Canadian Business Journal — October 2009

It’s probably safe to assume most Canadians take for granted that much of what we eat, wear, type on, talk into and fuel up with came from outside the country. Most of us are end-product people; we purchase items with little consideration as to where it came from and how it got here. While this characteristic isn’t exactly becoming, we can rest assured that someone out there knows the answers.

A few weeks ago, CBJ got to meet with two of those ‘someones’ at the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) office, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario. Marc Bibeau and Ruth Snowden are the President and Executive Director of CIFFA, respectively. They sat down with me to talk about the association, its mandates and the members it represents.

First, some background. CIFFA was founded 61 years ago in Montreal, by five men who were active in ocean freight—back then international air freight wasn’t yet established.  Today, the association is made up of about 230 regular member companies who act as international freight forwarders, managing ocean and air freight both into and out of Canada. CIFFA also has 130 associate member companies that provide services to its members (i.e. airlines, steamship lines and trucking companies). Altogether, the freight forwarding industry is an estimated $10- to $12-billion market in Canada.

“CIFFA has three main focuses,” Snowden says. “Our first job is advocacy work, which started because we wanted to have an industry presence in federal government. We don’t maintain an official lobby in Ottawa, but we do advocate on behalf of our stakeholders; for example, we provide stakeholder input to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).”

“CIFFA also has the networking side of organization,” she continues. “We have regional volunteers in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto who arrange all sorts of membership activities, such as our Forwarder’s Choice awards dinner.”

“Our third mandate is to ensure the employees of our member companies have access to world-class training and education in international trade and freight forwarding. We have an internationally recognised college-level certificate program and advanced certificate program. These programs are held in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto and Calgary, and take place over 26 weeks. CIFFA also invested in an e-learning platform, so these certification programs are available all over the world.”

“Our reason for being is member value,” summarizes Bibeau. “We take our memberships concerns and bring them to those three disciplines, working in their best interests.”

Industry concerns

Freight forwarders have a lot on their plates right now. For starters, the economy hasn’t been too kind in recent months. The rates and volumes have gone down to unsustainable levels—anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent, depending on what mode of transportation. Compound that with what Bibeau calls the ‘bi-polar loonie’ that rises and falls on a whim. “It has a huge global impact on operating costs,” he says.

Due to the global nature of the freight industry, Bibeau talks about continuous challenges their members face on a daily basis. “A lot of the complexity comes from international government standards and compliance in various countries,” he explains. “You also have to consider the price of oil and how it impacts costs and quoting. Our members rely on us to help them keep up with these changes; we have to be knowledgeable, current and competent; that’s why we send out a daily e-bulletin for updates on international prices, regulatory changes, electronic requirements and penalties.”

Perhaps the biggest issue for CIFFA right now is how the recent focus on homeland security affects the fluidity of cargo movement. After 9/11, the role of the CBSA has changed fundamentally to involve public safety, which means cracking down on container-inspection regulations.

“We have noticed an increase of stops to flow of cargo, and fluidity is everything in our industry,” says Snowden. “In their need to assess security, the agency has impeded that flow to the detriment of Canadian importers and exporters and to the industry, as a whole. For example, we had one pallet delayed for a week, because customs wanted to examine it, but didn’t have the resources to do it. This new program has caused a lot of delays, confusion and cost to the administration system. And cost is not something we really need to be driving right now.”

In response to the changes, CIFFA has been actively involved and engaged with the agency, through a sub-committee called the BCCC (Border Commercial Consultative Committee). “We work in harmony with the CBSA,” maintains Bibeau. “It’s not one against the other. What’s important is that regulatory bodies don’t always have the experience or skill set of transitioning some of these challenges. They legislate changes without the day-to-day industry knowledge. That’s why we are working on a closer relationship with the CBSA to have a bigger stake in the discussion.”

“We fully endorse homeland security,” Bibeau adds. “But the government needs to be more realistic as far as our archaic infrastructure and lack of funds and resources. What we have not is nowhere close to what they have planned out in their security strategy. To support these initiatives, they have to invest.”

So far, there haven’t been any concrete resolutions, but CIFFA is confident they have been heard. Bibeau and Snowden remain optimistic that the BCCC will see fruition in the future.

In for the long haul

CIFFA is an association that will continue to be relevant as long as international trade exists. Those interested in membership, then, should know they’re signing up for real value. “Being a part of CIFFA as a company or entrepreneur has tremendous benefits,” says Bibeau. “The advocacy, education, networking opportunities, governance and compliance are priceless.”

Logistics is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. And because global trade shows no sign of slowing down, it stands to reason that we should be promoting the Canadian freight forwarding industry and the work CIFFA does.

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