Innovation Policy

Twelve people in Ottawa to watch in 2020

(Clockwise from top left) Simon Kennedy, Michelle Rempel Garner, Steven Guilbeault, Mona Nemer, Robert Ghiz, Joyce Murray, Kevin Chan and Brian Masse. Government of Canada; Conservative Party of Canada; New Democratic Party of Canada; Ontario Tech University; Twitter.

On the campaign trail, the Liberals promised to take Big Tech to task and make life in the digital age cheaper and safer for consumers. In 2020, their minority government must figure out how to implement that ambitious innovation agenda. Along with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, who will remain the key government player on much of the file, here are the cabinet members, public servants and private-sector players most likely to have an impact on federal business and technology policy. 

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Simon Kennedy

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

The department’s public-service head took over in September, after four years leading Health Canada. He was deputy minister for international trade during the closing stages of Canada’s treaties with the European Union and South Korea. Such markets are key to the Liberal government’s $1.1-billion plan to diversify the countries to which Canadian firms sell and increase exports by 50 per cent by 2025. Technology is one target for growth, though the sector’s trade performance has lagged behind other countries in recent years. 

As deputy minister, Kennedy is in what one source familiar with the government’s agenda called “a really important role to listen to industry, but also understand where industry’s weaknesses are.” His experience negotiating international agreements and handling complex files—like health funding agreements with the provinces and territories, and cannabis legalization—will be assets for the stakeholder relations-heavy business of ISED. It was the most-lobbied department in each of the last four years, and its deputy minister typically tops government relations professionals’ meeting lists. 

The job’s high-contact nature is likely to persist as Bains works his way through an ambitious to-do list that includes contentious files like new data regulations, lowering cellphone bills and changes to the telecommunication and broadcasting laws. 

Michelle Rempel Garner

Conservative Shadow Minister for Industry & Economic Development 

Brian Masse 

NDP Critic for Innovation, Science & Industry

The October election that reduced the Liberals to a minority government cost them control of the House of Commons’ standing committees, which scrutinize legislation and investigate issues related to their mandates. That gives opposition critics Rempel Garner and Masse considerable power to amend legislation or push investigations via the industry, science and technology committee. 

Calgary MP Rempel Garner has wasted little time stepping into her new critic portfolio, claiming the government hasn’t made any meaningful changes to privacy and data rules and asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to lay out his plan for mobile virtual network operators—a type of challenger wireless carrier that Bains has been tasked with helping expand in Canada. During the Conservatives’ last stint in government she led Western Economic Diversification Canada, one of the federal government’s six regional development agencies, and previously ran a research and technology commercialization program at the University of Calgary.

Masse returns as the NDP’s innovation critic, and has called for more details on the government’s digital charter, a set of 10 high-level principles announced in May 2019. The Windsor, Ont. MP will have a special focus on telecommunications policy; NDP leader Jagmeet Singh named reducing cellphone bills as one of his six priorities for this parliament.

Both opposition critics will be influential voices as the industry committee studies key pieces of the Liberal innovation agenda, likely including the changes to telecommunications rules and new Big Tech regulations. Rempel Garner plans to use the committee’s powers to compel documents and summon officials to testify to challenge the government’s policies.  

Colin McKay

Head of Public Policy & Government Relations, Google Canada

Kevin Chan

Head of Public Policy, Facebook Canada

Michele Austin

Head of Government & Public Policy, Twitter Canada

All three of these Big Tech lobbyists are experienced Ottawa insiders. McKay, the longest-tenured, moved to Google in 2011 from an executive role in the the federal privacy commissioner’s office. Chan started at Facebook in 2014; he was a senior policy adviser to then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff between 2009 and 2011 after a stint as an aide to the clerk of the Privy Council. Austin, a former chief of staff to Conservative ministers Rona Ambrose and Maxime Bernier, joined Twitter in April 2018 from government relations firm Summa Strategies. 

The trio have been frequent visitors to Parliament Hill, testifying at parliamentary committees hearings on online hate, privacy breaches and copyright rules. And as The Logic reported in July 2019, foreign tech giants more than tripled their government relations activity in Ottawa under the Liberals. Google, Facebook and Twitter sought discussions on topics like NAFTA’s intellectual property and digital trade measures and the laws governing online political ads.  

They’ll be no less busy in 2020. The Liberals are promising major Big Tech regulations, including rules to “better protect people’s personal data and to encourage greater competition in the digital marketplace,” overseen by a new data commissioner. Atop the agenda are new penalties for social media platforms that fail to “remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours”—a provision that’s likely to apply to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube. 

Last summer, all three companies told the House justice committee they wanted to cooperate with the government to stop the spread of hateful and extremist messages online. But McKay called for more international coordination, claiming it’s difficult to follow individual rules in different countries; Chan said setting specific takedown timelines risks turning the platforms into censors; and Austin called for clear transparency standards against which platforms can be measured. 

Big Tech also faces bigger tax bills from Ottawa. The Liberals have promised a three per cent value-added tax on Canadian sales of online ads and user data for businesses with domestic revenues of $40 million or more, and at least $1 billion globally. It’s scheduled to take effect in April 2020. U.S. tech industry groups including the Internet Association—of which Twitter, Facebook and Google are members—have called on the Trump administration to pressure Ottawa to drop it. In November 2019, all three firms updated their lobbying registration to include the measure; both Twitter and Google have already met with senior Finance Canada officials responsible for tax policy. 

Steven Guilbeault

Minister of Canadian Heritage

The rookie MP shares responsibility with Bains for many of the most important innovation files. Top of their joint to-do list is deciding which suggestions to take from the government-appointed panel reviewing the federal broadcasting and telecommunications laws, which will deliver its conclusions by the end of the month. 

Guilbeault will be expected to deliver early symbolic wins as part of the Liberals’ beefed-up stance on Big Tech. He’s responsible for the social media takedown regulations, and has until the end of this year to introduce legislation requiring online content platforms to host and pay to create “meaningful levels” of Canadian material.   

The heritage minister and his counterparts at Innovation and Justice are also working on new online rights for consumers, including data portability and the right to withdraw their personal information from tech firms.  

Before running for the Liberals in Montreal in the October 2019 election, Guilbeault was best-known as an environmental activist, and he spent part of the new Parliament’s first two sitting weeks deflecting reporters’ questions about climate change and energy legislation to other cabinet members. As the government focuses on clean technology and greening the economy, he could play a role as a member of the economy and environment cabinet committee.

Joyce Murray

Minister of Digital Government

Murray will be the first full-time cabinet member for the federal technology infrastructure. She’s tasked with overseeing the “transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.”

Government departments are testing artificial intelligence and blockchain for tasks like tracking regulations and identity verification, while teams like the Canadian Digital Service work to replace paper-based processes, like rescheduling a citizenship test, with online ones. The government has also established new guidelines for its technology use, launching a risk-assessment tool for automated decision-making and a data strategy

Murray has been put in charge of Shared Services Canada, Ottawa’s IT department, and is also tasked with preventing repeats of high-profile technology project failures, such as that of the Phoenix payroll system, which caused significant HR and budgetary problems, or the rollout of the unified email service, which was downsized after falling more than a year behind schedule. She’s responsible for the in-progress search for a Phoenix replacement, and setting up a new “centre of expertise” that will advise on buying and installing big new technology systems. 

Mona Nemer

Chief Science Advisor

Will Amos

Parliamentary Secretary for Science to the Minister of Innovation, Science & Industry

Science had its own dedicated minister in the last Parliament; this time around, the Liberals have rolled it into Bains’s portfolio. But the breadth of the innovation minister’s responsibilities could mean bigger supporting roles for Nemer and Amos.

Bains’s mandate letter tasks him and the chief science adviser with making the government’s research publicly available, and pushing for scientific analysis to factor into decision-making. 

Unmentioned were several big files left on former science minister Kirsty Duncan’s desk, including a $2.8-billion program for federal laboratories announced in the 2018 budget, and a plan to replace piecemeal funding for third-party science organizations with a new Strategic Science Fund, revealed in the 2019 edition. 

Science advocates are also pushing the government to finish implementing the recommendations of a 2017 review led by David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto. While Ottawa increased funding to the three federal councils that award research grants and to graduate scholarship programs over the last two budgets, it provided less than two-thirds of the recommended money. It has not adopted other recommendations, like a parliamentary committee on research facilities.

One the Liberals did implement was the appointment of a chief science adviser. Nemer, a medical researcher who’s served as vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, was named to the post in September 2017. She’s provided input on the federal labs program from the 2018 budget and is working to set up positions like her own within federal departments and agencies.

As parliamentary secretary, Amos, a second-term MP who was formerly a federal Liberal staffer and an environmental lawyer, will likely stand in for Bains on many science-related funding announcements and stakeholder meetings—particularly those related to federal budgets.

Matthew Boswell

Commissioner of Competition

Boswell has steered the agency in a tech-focused direction since his March appointment, prioritizing the digital economy, telecommunications and biosciences sectors and picking “high-impact and consumer-focused” cases in a bid to ensure competition and innovation in the market. 

His competition bureau has already forced its first divestment, when U.S. private equity firm Thoma Bravo agreed to sell one of its two portfolio companies making reporting and valuation software for oil and gas software firms in August 2019. It has also sealed an interim agreement with Montreal-based FlightHub as part of a hidden-fees investigation and warned nearly 100 companies to review their influencer campaigns to ensure they’re following the law on paid promotions. 

In May, Bains asked Boswell to review Canada’s competition and enforcement practices to ensure they account for technology-driven issues like digital transformation and data accumulation and control. There’s no fixed timeline for a response, but the commissioner has already warned that the fines his agency can issue may not be high enough to change the behaviour of the big platforms. 

Robert Ghiz

CEO, Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association

The Liberals made cellphone bill reductions one of the key pocketbook issues in their re-election campaign. While the government is hoping telecoms will make the 25 per cent cuts on their own, they’ve paired their call for cooperation with the threat of increased competition via MVNOs. 

But the industry hasn’t embraced the target, nor does it seem eager to accept the alternative. 

The Big Three telecom firms—Rogers, Bell and Telus—have previously opposed proposals to require them to sell network access to challenger carriers at set prices, arguing that such rules would reduce the incentive to build wireless infrastructure. They’ve also argued that Canada is already a competitive market. 

The incumbents are reportedly preparing a lobbying push against the Liberals’ plans. They’re well represented in Ottawa: the Big Three between them have at least a dozen staff who spend a fifth or more of their time lobbying, and have at least as many outside government relations consultants registered to lobby on their behalf. 

But as the wireless industry’s chief lobbyist, Ghiz, a former Liberal staffer and P.E.I. premier,has taken the lead in responding to the government proposals. In October 2019, he said wireless prices had dropped by 30 per cent over the prior three years, citing a report from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). And he’s called MVNOs short-sighted, claiming the target reduction can be reached by “continuing to encourage facilities-based competition,” essentially meaning companies that run on their own towers and spectrum.  

Players to be named later

While the government hasn’t provided much detail on its planned Big Tech regulations, their success will depend in part on the powers granted to the to-be-created position of data commissioner, who will enforce them. The government will also have to distinguish the role of the new regulator and that of the privacy commissioner, to whom it has promised increased authority. Current privacy watchdog Daniel Therrien has repeatedly called for more powers and slammed the government for what he called inaction on privacy protections; his term expires in 2021. 

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A new chief information officer (CIO) will support Murray’s technology agenda. The government has yet to appoint a permanent replacement in the top tech job after Alex Benay left in August 2019. The new CIO will also have to see through some of the biggest projects Benay initiated, including rolling out the software picked to replace Phoenix; figuring out what data the government holds and increasing departments’ and agencies’ use of it; and moving more applications to the cloud.  

The government will also have to pick a new Bank of Canada governor, with incumbent Stephen Poloz’s term up in June. Under the former Export Development Canada CEO, the central bank began studying and reporting the risk climate change poses to the financial system. The Liberal government has also taken an interest in sustainable finance, striking a panel led by Rotman School of Management dean Tiff Macklem—a contender for the governor’s job both last and this time—that recommended a new “super tax” incentive to encourage investments in emissions-reducing companies and technology. While the prime minister doesn’t get to tell it what to do, the bank has joined the Network for Greening the Financial System, a group of monetary authorities trying to “mobilize capital for green and low-carbon investments.”