Innovation Policy

Ten Ottawa policymakers tech should watch in 2019

Photos by the Government of Canada

The CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter were hauled in front of various U.S. congressional panels last year to answer for perceived misdeeds committed on or by their platforms.

Tech companies aren’t feeling quite the same pressure in Canada, where the messaging coming out of the federal government has focused more on emulating tech’s winners—or, as Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains puts it, creating “20 Shopifys”—than regulating them.

But with respondents in a recent University of Toronto poll of 48 scale-ups saying the government’s “innovation agenda” doesn’t do enough to help companies like them grow, the industry isn’t shy about making its wishes known. And, fake news and data breaches will continue to generate some unfavourable headlines for the industry in the year ahead.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 people in Ottawa that tech will want to watch in 2019—or at least until October, when a scheduled election could change the who’s who of federal policymaking.

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Federal policymakers face big decisions on backing Canadian companies to scale globally, balancing privacy and innovation in the use of data, and preventing interference in elections. The Logic highlights 10 people in Ottawa, from MPs to civil servants, that will play key roles on innovation issues in 2019.

John Knubley

Deputy Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)

Appointed in September 2012 under the previous Conservative government, Knubley is one of only four department heads to have remained in his role through the Liberal ministry. He was a key government representative on three key economic strategy roundtables: digital industries, agrifood and cleantech.  

Earlier in his career, the deputy minister was a top executive at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and having a deputy at ISED with that experience has been “helpful” for the government, said Greg MacEachern, senior vice-president of government relations at Proof Strategies and a former federal Liberal staffer and municipal bureaucrat in Halifax.

Under the Liberals, the regional development agencies now report to the innovation minister. As part of the review of innovation programming kick-started by the 2017 federal budget, these agencies have created programs focused on creating business “clusters” in locally-strong sectors as well as technology adoption.

ISED is the most-lobbied department in the federal government, and its deputy minister is no exception—companies, universities, non-profits and industry groups filed 112 monthly communication reports involving Knubley in 2018; among deputy ministers, only Stephen Lucas at Environment and Climate Change Canada had more, at 134 reports. Knubley’s meetings with executives and entrepreneurs have influenced key policies, such as the 2017 federal budget’s innovation agenda.

In an election year, Knubley and his team will have to spend some time preparing for a transition to a possible new government. But there are still lots of initiatives from this government to implement, like the program to bring broadband to rural and remote communities, the new intellectual property strategy and distributing money from the Strategic Innovation Fund for steel producers affected by U.S. tariffs.

Mary Ng

Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion

The Markham–Thornhill MP was appointed to cabinet in July 2018, less than a year after she first entered the House through a by-election. Ng has close ties to the Prime Minister’s Office, where she worked as director of appointments and an adviser to Trudeau after the 2015 election.

This government has three cabinet ministers working on the trade file: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr and Ng. It’s Carr’s job to make the trade deals that “open the door” for Canadian companies, and Ng’s to “help our companies, our SMEs, walk through that door,” as she told The Canadian Press in September.

The minister is getting an expanded set of tools to help those businesses. The Fall Economic Statement singled out digital products, e-commerce and health technology as key sectors for export promotion. It set aside $1.1 billion for infrastructure and programs enabling exports, including more funding for the trade commissioner service and a marketing grant for SMEs. With the extra money comes a big goal: increasing Canada’s overseas exports by 50 per cent by 2025.

Another big challenge for the minister will be fixing the perception that the government has little to offer growing companies. Ng appointed Sheldon Levy, CEO of Next Canada and a former Ryerson University president, as an adviser on turning small businesses into scale-ups in December 2018.

Charlie Angus, Bob Zimmer, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith

House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee

The committee has become Parliament’s main forum to talk tech regulation. Conservative MP Zimmer is most interested in the possibility of foreign influence in the democratic process. Liberal MP Erskine-Smith has stressed the need to modernize privacy legislation and bring political parties and third-party actors under it. NDP MP Angus has suggested using anti-trust laws to break up the “data-opolies” of companies like Facebook, and has been critical of the federal government’s handling of the Sidewalk Labs Quayside project in Toronto

The chair, Zimmer, and vice-chairs Angus and Erskine-Smith flew to London in November to participate in a nine-nation panel set up to question Mark Zuckerberg about Cambridge Analytica; Facebook’s CEO didn’t show.

A December 2018 report from the committee recommended a number of substantial changes to the way Big Tech operates in Canada, including taking data into account in competition reviews of mergers, auditing algorithms and requiring that platforms quickly remove “manifestly illegal content.”

But the government isn’t required to follow the committee’s advice, and some of the suggestions—such as examining algorithms—are prohibited under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. So, direct action on the committee’s recommendations in 2019 is unlikely.

Regardless, the increasing media and public focus on Big Tech regulation and the high profile of the international cooperation group—with which the Canadian elected officials have said they want to keep working—mean Angus, Erskine-Smith and Zimmer are likely to remain in the spotlight this year.

Alex Benay

Federal Chief Information Officer

Benay is tasked with updating the government’s technology infrastructure and improving online delivery of services to citizens. His most high-profile task is finding a successor to the Phoenix payroll system that paid tens of thousands of civil servants incorrectly, and which a Senate committee said could end up costing the government $2.2 billion against the original budget of $309 million.

Benay told me last year that the government is done with the “big-bang approach”—a single, big-money, multi-year contract awarded to create a solution across all of government at once—to IT projects taken with the Phoenix project. Instead, the federal CIO wants to use an “agile” process with software companies proposing solutions and providing working prototypes to test in small rollouts. A final recommendation will be made by June 2019.

Elsewhere, Benay has been pushing departments to move more of their back-end functions and citizen-facing services onto the cloud, as well as backing innovation projects like the Government of Canada Talent Cloud platform, a short-term job site for the public service.

The government’s own strategic IT plan notes that various ministries and agencies are using more than 8,700 applications, many of them legacy systems. But the CIO’s powers are largely limited to setting policy. While his pilot projects may be successful, modernizing the government’s technology infrastructure will require departments to be given a lot more funding—something Benay doesn’t control.

Navdeep Bains

Minister of Innovation, Science & Economic Development

Bains remains the government’s key person on innovation and, while he’ll likely spend more time campaigning in his riding as the fall election approaches, there are plenty of files at ISED that still need his attention.

Those include the results of the National Digital and Data Consultations. The government plans to publish a summary of the discussions “in the coming weeks” said Danielle Keenan, a spokesperson for Bains.

In The Logic’s recent profile of Bains, business leaders and the minister’s staff said he takes industry expertise seriously in the policymaking process. Those consultations will likely inform ISED’s input to Finance Minister Bill Morneau as the Liberals prepare their final pre-election budget. Morneau has said he will focus on skills training. Workforce issues normally fall to Employment and Social Development Canada, but ISED has its own skills initiatives, like the CanCode fund for organizations that teach kids programming, and Mitacs, which creates paid internships.

There will also likely be further announcements from the Strategic Innovation Fund, a $2-billion-plus of government capital. Innovation experts have criticized the allocation of money within the program to steel and oil and gas companies, saying it’s being used to prop up economically-troubled sectors for political reasons, instead of investing in promising ideas. While some of the largest sums have gone to the domestic operations of multinationals like Toyota and ArcelorMittal, several Canadian scale-ups received funding in the second half of 2018, including Kitchener, Ont.-based wearables firm North and Burnaby, B.C.-headquartered General Fusion.

Daniel Therrien

Federal Privacy Commissioner

Therrien had a very busy 2018, looking into headline-grabbing incidents of people’s personal information being used and misused in both government and industry.

His watchdog agency—which reports to Parliament—currently has 251 investigations into businesses underway, including a study of Facebook launched in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. That investigation is “well advanced,” according to Corey Larocque, a communications advisor in the commissioner’s office. However, Larocque would not say when it would be concluded.

Therrien’s workload is only set to increase this year. New rules that took effect in November 2018 require companies to report data breaches, but the privacy commissioner hasn’t been given extra money or bodies to investigate. And, Therrien has been calling for increased powers—such as those recently given to his counterpart in the United Kingdom—to compel disclosure and issue fines to organizations that fail to comply with privacy law. The government has shown no sign of acting on those calls, which have been echoed by the ethics committee.

Therrien is not backing down. In his latest annual report to Parliament, he wrote that progress from the government on privacy issues, including modernizing legislation like the Privacy Act, had been “slow to non-existent.”

Karina Gould

Minister of Democratic Institutions

Gould is the government’s point person on fake news and electoral interference.

The Liberals have talked tough on fake news: in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly told Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that the government would intervene if companies did not act to address the issue themselves. But Bill C-76—which took effect in December 2018—has been criticized by some Senators and former national security advisor Richard Fadden  for not going far enough.

The legislation does establish a database of online political advertising during campaigns, but the government ignored calls from the House ethics committee and the federal privacy commissioner to apply privacy laws to political parties. And, the government’s focus on paid ads on social media platforms misses the ways in which disinformation and influence spreads online today, said Fenwick McKelvey, associate professor at Concordia University. “In the next election, I don’t think it’s about buying Facebook ads,” he said. “I think it’s about buying Facebook groups or Instagram influencers.”

“Some social media platforms have taken initial steps to address issues like cyber security, hate speech, and the dissemination of misinformation,” said Nicky Cayer, spokesperson for Gould, in a November 2018 statement to The Logic, adding that “more needs to be done to protect the integrity of our democracy.”

In the case of a significant attempt to influence the democratic process, the government could also invoke criminal actions and sanctions, Gould has said. But the minister has not indicated what else the government wants the platforms to do, or whether further measures to address election interference are planned.

With Canadians heading to the voting booths this fall, a single party data breach or fake news scandal will be enough to trigger some unflattering headlines for the minister and her signature legislative achievement. But as Elections Canada warned during the C-76 legislative process, any electoral changes needed to be passed by the end of 2018 to be implemented in this year’s vote. So Gould—and Canada—is locked into these rules for the fall.

Adam Vaughan

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development

The outspoken MP in his second term is a wildcard pick for this list, except for one key policy issue with global implications: Sidewalk Toronto. Some of Toronto’s most valuable waterfront real estate falls in his riding of Spadina–Fort York, including the Quayside lands, where the controversial Sidewalk Toronto project is being planned.

Since the prime minister spoke at the Sidewalk Toronto launch announcement in October 2017, Vaughan has been the most vocal Liberal government supporter of Waterfront Toronto, the government agency that’s partnering with Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs on the project.

The Quayside file involves a number of figures who will be familiar from Vaughan’s political past. He first won a seat in the House by beating then-NDP candidate Joe Cressy in a by-election. Now a Toronto city councillor, Cressy was recently appointed to represent the city on the board of Waterfront Toronto.

As a city councillor, Vaughan was a vocal critic of Rob and Doug Ford. The latter is now Ontario premier, and the provincial government recently fired its three appointees to Waterfront Toronto, a joint municipal-provincial-federal agency.

Vaughan—whose riding also includes the former site of Ontario Place—recently accused Ford of trying to “sabotage” Waterfront Toronto. “He has never won the argument with serious city planners on his vision for the waterfront,” Vaughan told the Financial Post.

In 2011, then-councillor Ford discussed plans to build a monorail, mall and a sporting facility on land that his brother’s administration wanted to take from Waterfront Toronto.

Last week, Vaughan characterized the opposition to the Quayside project as “a couple high-tech activists and a really flimsy, poorly written auditor’s report.”

The December 2018 report from Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found that Waterfront Toronto had provided more information to Sidewalk Labs than other bidders for the Quayside, and that the agency had rushed approvals for the project.

Vaughan has acknowledged critics’ concerns about the use of personal information in the project, but also tweeted that using “the waterfront as a staging ground to battle BIG Data is irresponsible.”

The Liberal government has taken a more reserved—albeit still positive—tone on the project than its Toronto MP. In an October 2018 statement to The Logic, Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the feds 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.”

The project enters its critical final stage when the master development agreement is expected to be completed by Sidewalk Labs in the spring.