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Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, seen here in Montreal on Jan. 9, 2020, says his top priorities are to support commercialization of made-in-Canada clean technology; to update Canada’s outdated electronic privacy laws, policies and programs; and to cut the cost of cellphone bills.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Four years ago, Navdeep Bains’s main priority as a minister in Justin Trudeau’s new majority Liberal government was to develop a long-term innovation agenda. He got to keep his job as innovation, science and industry minister after the October 2019 election, but with the Liberals now in a minority situation, his priorities have shifted to shorter-term political considerations.

In the first postelection interview about his new mandate, Mr. Bains said his top priorities are to support commercialization of made-in-Canada clean technology; to update Canada’s outdated electronic privacy laws, policies and programs; and to cut the cost of cellphone bills.

“The goal hasn’t changed – it’s still to focus on economic growth and job creation,” Mr. Bains said at the headquarters of Montreal AI startup Imagia Thursday during a visit to the city. “But the world is changing, and we also want to go where the puck is headed."

It’s not difficult to see the political calculations behind his priorities, drawn from his official mandate letter.

Amid the divisive debate over the government’s carbon tax and frustrations in the energy sector over access to markets and pipeline delays, promoting a homegrown cleantech sector is an attempt to change the conversation and show the shift to a low-carbon economy can bring economic benefits. “We want to invest in clean technologies to drive that change and to make sure that as we reduce our carbon footprint, we also create good quality middle-class jobs,” Mr. Bains said. “There are enormous economic opportunities for Canadians. This is about making sure … everyone can benefit from this transition – and this includes the resource sector. They have to be, they will be, part of this process as well.”

During its last mandate, the government heavily funded the cleantech sector through its Sustainable Development Technology Canada funding agency, the Business Development Bank of Canada and its Strategic Innovation Fund. The signature initiative this time is to deliver on a campaign pledge to halve corporate taxes for businesses that develop zero-emissions technologies and products.

The second priority is to follow up on the government’s “Digital Charter,” a list of 10 principles guiding how it should update its digital protection regime, released last year. Mr. Trudeau has asked Mr. Bains to work with the ministers of justice and heritage to introduce changes that include establishing a new set of online rights that would, among other things, give Canadians the ability to remove and transfer personal data from one digital platform to another; to force greater transparency and protection for how personal data is used and sold; and to enact new regulations for large digital companies to better protect personal data and encourage competition.

“We’ll be moving forward on a suite of legislation, policies and programs” to address an overriding “lack of trust,” Mr. Bains said. “People are really concerned about what’s going on with their personal data.”

The focus on digital and data policy comes after criticism that Canada has fallen behind other jurisdictions, including the U.S and Europe, which have cracked down on digital giants for privacy violations and introduced tough privacy legislation, including Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Many were disappointed the digital charter fell short of delivering a comprehensive data strategy that would not only better protect Canadians and get tough on global digital giants, but also foster opportunities for domestic technology companies.

The Trudeau government’s “misguided enthusiasm and vigour around courting Silicon Valley giants and other foreign tech branch plants came at the expense of creating an effective digital policy infrastructure for Canada,” former BlackBerry co-chief executive Jim Balsillie said.

Mr. Bains promised the government would modernize digital privacy laws, but wouldn’t confirm when legislation would come, citing the need to consult other parties in a minority parliament. He said the updated laws would be “interoperable” with tough legislation like GDPR and California’s Consumer Privacy Act, and feature “strong enforcement mechanisms so there will be meaningful consequences” for offenders. But he declined to confirm whether the legislation would be as tough as regulations in the EU and California. “We’ll provide clear direction to empower Canadians to make sure they have more trust in our digital laws, but at the same time we want to ensure that our businesses can compete.”

As for cellphone prices, Canadians still pay among the highest rates globally, even after they fell by an average of more than 20 per cent from 2016 to 2018. Cutting them by a further 25 per cent within two years was another campaign pledge to address voter concerns, Mr. Bains said. “Being connected is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity."

To that effect, the government issued a policy directive to the CRTC in 2019 to promote competition, affordability and consumer interests in telecommunications policy. Mr. Bains will also try to stimulate competition from mobile virtual network operators – service providers who access existing carrier networks at wholesale prices to sell their own services – and to set aside new wireless spectrum for regional providers.

During the previous mandate, Mr. Bains’s innovation measures included funding venture capitalists, supporting immigration changes that made it easier for skilled foreign workers to get quick approval to move to Canada, funding “superclusters” and launching an intellectual property strategy.

Some critics have said that amounts to an ad-hoc set of programs that fall short of a full-scale innovation strategy and put too much focus on luring foreign tech giants rather than supporting homegrown companies. Conservative industry critic Michelle Rempel said the Liberals had focused too much on celebrating funding announcements and program launches, but have had little to say about tangible successes. “If the government stopped their spending announcements on innovation and went just to outcome announcements, they’d have nothing to announce,” she said, calling that “a problem we’ve seen across successive governments.”

Mr. Bains said his government was the first to roll out a multipronged innovation strategy in decades. “We’re very proud of the direction we’re headed in. It’s a multiyear effort. … I’m confident our approach is working."

With files from Josh O’Kane

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