Almost a year has passed since Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains spoke to The Globe and Mail about his priorities for 2020. That, of course, was before the pandemic hit. The Globe’s Sean Silcoff caught up with Mr. Bains last week to talk about navigating a year that was very different than what anyone imagined and what’s ahead for 2021.
You’re Canada’s third-longest-serving industry minister of the past century, after C.D. Howe and John Manley. Why have you had so much staying power?
We serve at the discretion and pleasure of the Prime Minister. But I firmly believe that my ambition for supporting Canadians, creating good jobs, focusing on growth, productivity, competitiveness, on a strong and robust innovation agenda, has put me in a solid position within our government to continue to advocate for those issues. It is a huge honour to have this kind of staying power in a portfolio that has such a profound impact on economic policy.
In January you said your top priorities for 2020 were to support commercialization of domestic clean technology, update electronic privacy laws and programs and cut cellphone costs. How did you fare?
The digital charter implementation act was delayed because of COVID-19 until fall. We’ve introduced changes to our privacy and data legislation to build more trust and to give Canadians more control and have better accountability. Having the strongest fines amongst the G7 for privacy law demonstrates people must be compliant.
Around cleantech … we continue to invest in organizations like Sustainable Development Technology Canada that have invested in some incredible Canadian companies. We built on our Strategic Innovation Fund to help scale up those companies. Look at the investments we’ve made with Ford Motor Company of Canada to [build] zero-emission vehicles [here]. That will help with the major transformation of our supply chain.
Around affordability for cellphone plans, we were clear with the telecommunication companies that not only do we want to see investments in our networks, we want to make sure Canadians have access at affordable prices. So we introduced measures for the mid-tier plans. The objective was to see those prices go down by 25 per cent. We’re starting to see progress – some plans have gone down by 10 per cent. That’s a testament to the fact that not only do we have a clear plan, we’re communicating that and holding the companies accountable. Obviously there’s more to do. And we have a pro-competition policy. The set-asides for spectrum have made it clear that regional players will drive competition, which will help reduce prices.
As the pandemic spread, the government had to act fast, make big bets with limited knowledge and address gaps in preparedness. What went right in your response, what didn’t and what needs work?
We asked businesses to step up. Over 1,000 companies pivoted quickly to either retool or scale up their operations. Virtually all our PPE was [previously] procured from international suppliers. Now 40 to 50 per cent is sourced from Canadian companies. The superclusters had 80 COVID-related projects. We needed to do better around building our biomanufacturing capacity. We made investments … not only in science but also building manufacturing capabilities. That is one area where we can and must do more. That became apparent in the pandemic.
What are your top 2021 priorities?
It boils down to jobs, jobs, jobs. How do we create a growth and productivity agenda that enables our companies to compete, to create jobs for Canadians? Only 80 per cent of the jobs lost due to the pandemic have returned. Certain sectors, certain regions, have disproportionately been hurt. How we focus on the jobs agenda through focusing on growth-related measures to target those key sectors will be key priorities for me.
One important area is around systemic discrimination. This is personally very important to me. In 2018 I introduced legislation to make sure Canadian companies had a diversity policy beyond gender. For the first time companies had to disclose that information this year. We saw some progress and better representation at board and senior management levels, but we know that the status quo is unacceptable. Systemic discrimination is a reality, and we need to do better. That’s why I introduced the 50-30 challenge [which calls on organizations to reach gender parity at senior levels plus 30-per-cent representation of other underrepresented groups). Five hundred organizations have signed up. We have $33-million for smaller businesses that are developing diversity and inclusion policies and a certification process that will be overseen by the Standards Council of Canada.
Biotechnology emerged as one of Canada’s most promising sectors this year. You funded COVID-19 antibody developer AbCellera Biologics and others. Are those just pandemic one-offs, or do you have a long-term strategy to support the domestic sector?
We definitely will have a longer-term strategy [for] biotech. This is an area where we recognized we can and must do more to protect and save Canadian lives and at the same time create quality, middle-class jobs. The biotech sector has a lot of potential. We’ve made significant investments in fundamental science. Now the objective is how do we commercialize those ideas and create economic development opportunities in Canada. If we’re dealing with this pandemic and making these investments, we need to make sure this is part of a broader industrial strategy. … We’re still working on the details.
The budget for the Competition Bureau is smaller than a decade ago, adjusting for inflation, contrary to global peers. Some feel the bureau’s toolkit needs to be updated for the digital economy. With antitrust regulators elsewhere cracking down on Big Tech’s monopolistic practices, why haven’t you given Commissioner Matthew Boswell more tools and resources to do his job properly?
We made changes [to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act] and sent out consultations for the Privacy Act. We’ll be looking at the Competition Act. We’re going to make changes to the Statistics Act. There’s more to come. These are all important tools to update our market frameworks in order to promote more competition, level the playing field and give them additional resources. We are looking at updating the rules for the digital economy. The Competition Bureau is definitely part of that strategy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.