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opinion

Charles Boulanger is CEO of LeddarTech, Carol Leaman is CEO of Axonify, Ian L. Paterson is CEO of Plurilock, Alison Sunstrum is CEO of CNSRV-X. They are all members of the Council of Canadian Innovators

Between the global pandemic and the turmoil of U.S. politics dominating the news, it’d be understandable if you barely noticed the tidy little cabinet shuffle in Ottawa recently.

But leaders in the Canadian innovation ecosystem took notice.

Navdeep Bains, the lead minister with the task of driving innovation in Canada, is retiring from politics.

Since the Liberals took power in 2015, Mr. Bains is the only minister who’s held the innovation portfolio, so this is a significant change. There’s never been any doubt that Mr. Bains was a champion for innovation in Canada; at conferences and events, it has always been clear that he was committed to gearing Canada up for the 21st-century knowledge economy, and he was always rooting for the success of Canadian companies.

But any analysis of the innovation landscape in Canada today would lead to a conclusion that there is still much work left to be done.

It was a grim coincidence that, on the same day the cabinet shuffle happened, news broke that BlackBerry sold 90 of its patents to Huawei – a significant transfer of intellectual property from Canada to China.

What’s more, throughout 2020 we’ve seen a wave of acquisitions of Canadian technology companies. Some of this M&A activity is bound to happen in any healthy market, but Ottawa has been slow to view our innovative, high-growth companies as strategically important assets that need to be protected and supported.

As minister, Mr. Bains started the ball rolling on a lot of things, but perhaps his legacy will be defined in large part by his successor, François-Philippe Champagne, who will need to build on the foundation that Mr. Bains laid.

As executives running Canada’s fastest-growing technology companies, we are optimistic about the future of the innovation ecosystem under his leadership. Now is exactly the right moment for a fresh perspective and an injection of new energy.

His background uniquely prepares him to be effective in driving innovation strategy for Canada. Before entering politics, he was general counsel for a large technology company, so he knows the importance of regulatory standards, and intangible assets that drive value in today’s global economy. As Minister of International Trade, he successfully removed IP provisions from CPTPP, to prevent the trade agreement from hurting Canadian technology companies.

Mr. Champagne takes on his new role at a turning point. We are still battling our way through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we can hold onto a glimmer of hope, as the first vaccines are already being administered.

With hope in sight, there has never been a more important moment for Canada to be developing a prosperity strategy to allow our country to enjoy the maximum economic benefit from the postpandemic recovery, and the innovation economy will be looking to Mr. Champagne for leadership.

The postpandemic world will surely be more data-driven than the lives we had before COVID-19, and our country urgently needs a national data strategy that appropriately harnesses the economic benefits that can flow from data, while also mitigating the potential harms.

When Parliament returns, Mr. Champagne will have an important role, steering debate over a generational overhaul to our national data privacy legislation. This legislation must protect the privacy of citizens and foster trust in digital services, while also avoiding unintended consequences that will harm innovative companies creating value in the data economy.

The new minister will also need to take stock of his department after COVID-19 and retool Canada’s suite of economic development programs, as existing funding streams have been adapted on the fly and overrun by a flood of necessary emergency programs.

Mr. Champagne has shown that he was eager to consult with business leaders in the past, and we look forward to engaging him as our country navigates this inflection point.

With everything else going on in the world today, it can be difficult to muster feelings of optimism. But all Canadians, and particularly the leaders of the innovation economy, should allow themselves to feel optimistic about Mr. Champagne as our new champion.

We should all be rooting for his success.

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