Navdeep Bains has been charged with pointing Canadian business toward a new-economy future, but his most pressing tasks are decisions about the survival of today's industry.
At 38, he's relatively young, relatively unknown outside Liberal Party circles and overseeing a sprawling multibillion-dollar government department in charge of Canada's industrial policy. He sees himself as the voice of business at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet table.
His appointment has been noted mostly for symbolism, as he's one of two turbaned Sikhs in the cabinet but it should have been noted for the heft of a young minister: Mr. Bains is a political heavy hitter. It's no accident that the good-natured MP who started his career as an MBA grad at Ford Motor Co. of Canada, has a major economic portfolio.
Mr. Bains is now Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, a portfolio that used to be called Industry, but was renamed to reflect the new-economy mission. His goals, he said in an interview, include encouraging R&D and helping businesses scale up and go global. He's mandated to develop an "Innovation Agenda."
But his urgent tasks are old-school Industry minister stuff: judging whether Ottawa should pour money into aerospace manufacturer Bombardier Inc. and its C Series airliners, and planning federal support for the auto sector if Canada ratifies the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The tension between new-economy innovation and old-economy subsidies has a new flavour under the Liberals. The Conservatives subsidized industry, but their rhetoric was often skeptical of government's role: they held their noses and bought into GM and Chrysler in the past recession. The Liberals stressed new-economy innovation in their rhetoric, but also came to power promising growth, jobs and thriving industry. There's even more political pressure.
"You can't turn your back on manufacturing. It still represents 10 per cent of Canada's economy, 1.7 million jobs. And there's tremendous opportunities there," Mr. Bains said in an interview.
Small and medium-sized businesses depend on the auto and aerospace sectors, he added. "These jobs we talk about, these companies that we talk about, there's a huge multiplier effect. They have a significant effect on a lot of [small and medium-sized enterprises] that rely on them … and these are good-paying jobs, as well."
It sounds, at times, like there's no choice but to pump money into auto plants or Bombardier. But he insisted there are no foregone conclusions.
"With a business background, I take nothing for granted, and numbers matter," he said.
Mr. Bains does have a business background, but he's a political veteran. He was an MP from 2004 to 2011, elected at 26 and defeated in 2011 – a loss he took hard. He's most noticeable for his calm, even-tempered, smiling, good-natured demeanour. But he impressed early on, becoming Paul Martin's parliamentary secretary. More recently, he was Trudeau leadership-campaign organizer, then co-chair of the Liberals' Ontario election campaign, playing a key role in suburbs surrounding Toronto. He's a political player.
The son of parents who immigrated to Toronto in the 1970s, he lived first in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood then in Brampton, where his father, Balwinder, owned a kitchen-cabinets company and worked so often with Italian-Canadians he was called Vince. Navdeep Bains went to a big public high school, Turner Fenton, then York University before getting his MBA at the University of Windsor.
His prepolitics career was in industry, though short-lived: three years in Ford's finance department, in budget planning, business planning and revenue consolidation. His between-politics career, after his 2011 loss, was teaching business in Ryerson University's MBA program.
He sounds like an MBA-course teacher. He talks of creating business "ecosystems" like Waterloo's tech community. And when it comes to old-school industries such as the auto sector, he insists innovation is key. Canada has lost assembly-line projects to low-wage areas such as Mexico, and Mr. Bains concedes attracting them is a challenge, but insists labour costs are only a small part of the equation.
"We have to say, in the global supply chain, where does Canada position itself? What makes it so unique? What is our value-add proposition? Which parts do we want to focus on? That's what we've got to figure out. That's what industry is going to tell me," he said. "My job is that when they identify those opportunities, they have a partner."