Feds’ position on Quayside project unchanged; provincial, city politicians emphasize they’re asking ‘tough questions’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff shake hands at the announcement of the intiial framework agreement between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, in Toronto on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The federal government continues to sound positive about Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto’s Quayside project, even as provincial and city officials insisted they’re seeking clarification on the development’s data and privacy implications.

In a statement to The Logic, Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the government is “proud” to partner with the province and city on the $1-billion shoreline project that is designed to make the Port Lands usable through flood prevention and land reclamation efforts. That work is “allowing for the redevelopment of this vital part of the city, and for Waterfront Toronto to partner with companies like Google to build the communities of tomorrow” (Sidewalk Labs is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company).

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Last week, The Logic reported that the auditor general of Ontario is conducting a value-for-money audit of Waterfront Toronto. Elsewhere, entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the agency’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, citing—among other issues—concerns about the collection and use of data in the project. And, former Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) co-CEO Jim Balsillie penned a lengthy op-ed in The Globe and Mail, in which he calls the Quayside “the most dangerous” innovation strategy Canada has attempted in recent decades.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was present alongside then-Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory at the Quayside announcement last October. “I’m very excited to be announcing this great partnership with Sidewalk Labs, with Alphabet and Google, in recognizing that Canada is doing the right things in the right direction, and we’re doing it because we have such confidence in our citizens and in our potential,” he said. Asked if he continues to support the project in light of recent reports, the Prime Minister’s Office directed The Logic to Champagne’s statement.

Talking Point

All three levels of government claim the protection of citizens’ data rights and privacy is on their agendas. Ottawa and Queen’s Park say they’re working with Waterfront Toronto to ensure accountability. Meanwhile, Toronto’s mayor is talking directly to Sidewalk Labs executives, but his main challenger wants more clarity now.

The infrastructure minister did reference the concerns raised by Muzaffar and Balsillie, albeit not directly. The “world-class Digital Strategy Advisory Panel is working to ensure that principles of ethical use of technology and the protection of personal privacy and data are respected in all parts of this development,” the statement says, adding that the federal government will continue to work with Waterfront Toronto and the province and city to ensure “this innovative development takes place in an ethical and accountable fashion.”

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A spokesperson in the office of Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton, Champagne’s provincial counterpart, noted that members of the Ontario government had visited “Waterfront Toronto” and “continue to ask tough questions.” The province expects the agency to “implement strong measures to ensure accountability and transparency while keeping the interests of taxpayers top of mind,” reads the statement, which calls the Quayside an “exciting, job-creating plan.”

The statement, in response to questions from The Logic, struck a different tone than the one McNaughton adopted in August, when he used a friendly question in the provincial legislature to tout the signing of a Plan Development Agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. At the time, he called the development “cutting-edge innovation,” and said it delivered on the Progressive Conservative (PC) government’s “commitment to attracting knowledge-based capital and investments to Ontario” (the PCs took power in June).

Speaking to media after voting in advance polls in the Toronto municipal election on Wednesday, Tory said there “remain some unanswered questions” about the Sidewalk project, specifically naming data protections. The mayor said he had personally told senior executives at the company that there was “much more work to do here to make sure that we can do what we all have to do, which is to satisfy Torontonians” that their information rights and privacy “will be respected.”

In an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Wednesday, Helen Burstyn, Waterfront Toronto board chair, said the agency has “three levels of government who stand firmly behind us, and are more than happy with the work that we’re doing.”

Mayoral candidate and former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat also emphasized the need for greater surety with regards to data collection. “The protection of the public interest needs to be made paramount and needs to be made explicit,” she said in an interview. It is “the role of the mayor to take the bull by the horns and to be absolutely clear about the public interest, and to assure the public,” which she said he has not.

The former chief city planner’s portfolio included the Waterfront Secretariat, the city entity involved with the shoreline revitalization efforts.“This whole contract that was advanced by Waterfront Toronto was not something that was done in collaboration with the city,” Keesmaat said, speaking based on her time in the municipal government. “And that’s a problem.”

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are scheduled to release a “comprehensive description of the component parts” of the master innovation and development plan for Quayside next month, with a draft plan to be published early next year.