Opinion

Letter from the editor: Can Canada do hard things?

Chrystia Freeland, Canada's deputy prime minister and minister of finance, during a photo opportunity before tabling the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, in April 2021. David Kawai/Bloomberg
article-aa

The U.S. Senate passed a sweeping US$250-billion bill this week, designed to help the country compete economically with China. The legislation authorizes US$190 billion to ramp up federal research and development spending, along with US$52 billion in emergency outlays for domestic manufacturers to help address the semiconductor shortage.

Democrat Chuck Schumer, one of the architects of the bipartisan bill, did not hide its intent, calling it “an extraordinary opportunity to set our country on the path to out-innovate, out-produce, and out-compete the world in the industries of the future.”

It’s yet another signal that Canada needs bold, deliberate action to stay competitive. For The Logic, it’s a reminder that we can’t cover Canadian innovation effectively without reporting on the capital deployed in the nation’s capital.

That’s why we were so thrilled to announce that David Reevely is joining The Logic later this month as an Ottawa correspondent. He’ll partner with Murad Hemmadi to bring our readers agenda-setting coverage of how the federal government is shaping Canada’s innovation economy. 

David knows Ottawa inside out. He was most recently Ottawa bureau chief for The Canadian Press, supervising coverage of all aspects of Canada’s federal government for the national wire service. Before that, he covered politics for the Ottawa Citizen as a reporter and columnist, focusing at different times on local affairs, the Ontario government and the place of the federal government in the capital.

In the three years since we launched The Logic, this government’s attitude towards Big Tech has done an apparent 180. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was once eager to share a stage with Sheryl Sandberg, or fly to California to meet with Jeff Bezos. Now the Liberals are trying to pass two controversial bills that would set new rules for digital privacy and content promotion. Two more on the way will govern online harms and payments for publishers. The likes of Netflix are now obliged to collect Canadian sales taxes, and Ottawa is barreling ahead with plans for a digital-services tax, despite opposition from the tech giants and sabre-rattling from Washington.

The Liberals included some of these measures in April’s federal budget—which, you may have heard, was without precedent in modern Canadian history, not just in its staggering levels of spending but in its ambition to reshape the country’s economy. To reverse decades of declining real GDP growth, the government is pumping tens of billions into startups and the ecosystems that nurture them, into R&D and commercialization of intellectual property, into kickstarting a “green recovery,” and into skills training. (That’s on top of the billions the budget allocated to help businesses affected by the pandemic.) The superclusters are getting more money. The Canada Infrastructure Bank says it’s going to get serious about spending. There’s a lot going on.

Or at least, there’s a lot on the to-do list. The gap between ambition and execution has at times bedevilled these Liberals and the various clusters, banks and funds they’ve spun into existence to help realize their vision—and that was before the pandemic raised the stakes, and further divided the government’s attention. It’s one thing to pledge a heap of money to solve a problem. It’s another to ensure that money is spent effectively—or spent at all.

Two months ago in The Line, Lauren Dobson-Hughes offered Canada some tough love, noting that while the challenges our institutions have faced during this pandemic were “entirely predictable,” they have nevertheless struggled to meet them. Canada isn’t unique in having the atrophied state of its national capacity exposed by COVID-19. But as the Liberals try to make us greener, more innovative and more connected, I’m struck by how few items on their agenda are anything like straightforward. Is this country still capable of doing hard things? 

The Logic has an Ottawa bureau because the future of Canada depends on how the government manages these challenges. David, Murad and the rest of our team will be watching on your behalf. We hope you’ll be reading.