Small and medium-sized businesses are being challenged to drive the economic recovery by spurring innovation and job growth now that Ottawa is turning off the taps on stimulus funding.
Rob Moore, Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism, called on the sector to do its part by designating 2011 the "Year of the Entrepreneur," stressing the recovery is at a critical juncture.
While eager to praise entrepreneurs as the economy's unsung heroes, Mr. Moore did not unveil any new programs or initiatives to assist them with either innovation or job creation at Tuesday's event. Moreover, both he and Ted Menzies, Minister of State for Finance, declined to comment on what new measures smaller businesses could expect in the spring budget.
That prompted some business owners to dismiss the designation as a "fancy title" that lacks teeth, arguing Ottawa must do more to ensure entrepreneurs' success - especially if they are being charged with propelling economic growth.
"That is what 2011 is going to be about. It's the time when innovation and continued job creation are moving to the forefront and the private sector steps up to lead the charge," Mr. Moore said during a media event at Ryerson University in Toronto.
With short-term stimulus spending coming to an end, he contends it is time for the private sector to step in and pick up the slack.
Small to medium-sized businesses contribute 50 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Since 2006, the federal government has reduced taxes for entrepreneurs and job creators and it has introduced measures to cut red tape, among other initiatives, Mr. Menzies said. "We recognize there is still a lot more to do."
Nonetheless, MP Navdeep Bains, the Liberal critic for small business, slammed Tuesday's announcement as a public relations stunt: "It comes with no new money, no new programs and no new strategy."
Jennifer Lambert Jones, artistic director of Toronto-based Joy of Dance Centre & Teachers College, said entrepreneurs want more than just a "fancy title" for the year. She later delivered that message to Mr. Moore during a prebudget consultation that followed the event.
Since she runs a private career college, her main problem is attracting international students. Many of those students, including those from India and China, face onerous visa requirements, she said, a situation she would like remedied.
Peter Feldman, founder of Medical DataBanks, wants Ottawa to create a "flow-through share" model, similar to that which currently exists in the mining and energy industries, to encourage investment in life sciences research and development.
Mining and energy companies issue flow-through shares to fund exploration and development, while investors benefit from tax incentives.
Mr. Feldman, whose company manages clinical research programs for drug development, argues that his proposal would generate new research jobs, particularly for highly educated immigrants stuck in low-paying work like driving taxis.
"It breaks my heart to see the kind of potential we have and how these people are not able to break into the job system," Mr. Feldman said.
Paul Rivett, director of client services at the Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham, Ont., a not-for-profit business advisory centre, said more government support is needed to train entrepreneurs on basics such as building a business, securing investment, hiring employees and attracting customers. That could involve Ottawa working in concert with existing programs and organizations.
"A lot of great startup ideas crash very quickly because they don't have the business ability to make the right decisions. And the little resources they have can get misspent and ruin the opportunity of the business before it gets out of the gate," Mr. Rivett said.
Additionally, Ottawa should consider providing more incentives to encourage "angel investors" - wealthy individuals who provide financing to startup companies, he said.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, meanwhile, is lobbying for concrete measures to reduce red tape and payroll taxes in the upcoming budget.
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