Bardish Chagger was elected Member of Parliament for Waterloo when Justin Trudeau’s red wave swept the country last October. She was sworn in as Minister of Small Business and Tourism in the first Cabinet and was recently appointed Government House Leader – the first woman to hold the post and one of the youngest. As one of the three industry focused Ministers, Chagger is working with her colleagues Navdeep Bains and Kirsty Duncan to lead consultations on developing Canada’s Innovation Agenda. Earnscliffe Strategy Group’s Julie Garner caught up with Chagger at her Waterloo office to discuss how the consultations have been going and her thoughts on Waterloo Region’s role in the economic success of the nation.

JG: Minister, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today. You have been travelling the country meeting with business owners and other organizations supporting innovation. How is it going?

BC: The consultations are going extremely well. It has been an amazing opportunity to develop a strategy for innovation from the ideas of Canadians. Canadians have been eager to participate and we are getting a lot of great recommendations. I think Canadians know that this is a genuine engagement and that we are listening.

The consultations are winding down now and we will be working with our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and our entire government to develop Canada’s Innovation Agenda. A whole-of-government approach has never been taken before.

JG: The Government of Canada has set an ambitious goal of becoming a leading global hub for innovation. In your words, how does having Canada become a leading global hub for innovation help all Canadians?

BC: The world continues to change quickly and profoundly, and we don’t want to just keep up; we want to be leading the way. Canadians need to be adaptable and resilient so that they can spot opportunities to create jobs, drive growth across all industries and improve lives. The country is at its most prosperous when everyone has a fair chance at success.

Innovation feeds growth, and when companies grow, they create more jobs for middle-class Canadians. It is the path to inclusive growth and will help Canada foster a thriving middle class and open the country to new economic, social and environmental possibilities. Through the Innovation Agenda, Canada will be globally competitive in promoting research, translating ideas into new products and services, accelerating business growth and propelling entrepreneurs from the startup phase to international success.

JG: You have been consulting on the Innovation Agenda all summer. What is the main feedback you have received from companies within the tech sector?

BC: Over the summer, our 10 innovation leaders have hosted 28 roundtables across the country, directly engaging over 400 Canadians on the six areas of action – including two here in Waterloo Region. Our interactive website and social media presence has had over 85,000 visits and interactions to date.

So, a lot of feedback for us to go through and help build the Innovation Agenda.

Some of the main themes we’ve been hearing:

    • Accessing – and retaining – top talent both globally and within Canada.

    • Educating and developing the skills in Canadians to succeed in the new economy – enhancing coding and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject knowledge.

    • Opportunities to develop world-leading clusters that support a culture of innovation and economic growth.

    • Access to risk capital for startups and patient capital for scaling-up companies

    • Opportunities exist for public-private partnerships that support the growth of Canadian firms.

JG: The Toronto-Waterloo Region Corridor has the potential to be the anchor in Canada’s quest to become a global innovation hub but faces a significant transit connectivity challenge. Can you tell us how you will plan to work with your Cabinet colleagues to ensure that the corridor gets connected?

BC: Innovation is a team effort and its success rests in the ability to bring people and sectors together to partner and work towards common goals. That’s why our Government is committed to taking action that will strengthen the Toronto-Waterloo Region Corridor.

Waterloo has been my home for my entire life, and I know firsthand how important it is to our future as a top innovation hub in the new knowledge economy. We need to connect the Corridor’s 15,000 technology companies, incredible academic institutions and 200,000 technology workers together.

Across the country, Canadian cities are growing faster than ever before, creating traffic congestion and long commutes that make it harder for people to get to work and for families to spend time together. This congestion impacts people’s lives and makes us less productive overall. We are committed to making significant investments in infrastructure that will improve our public transit systems, strengthen Canadian communities, and help create jobs and grow the middle class.

The $3.3 million our Government committed in Budget 2016 to Transport Canada will support an assessment of VIA Rail’s high-frequency rail proposal, including the Toronto-Waterloo Region. I’m confident that we’ll find a solution that works for the region’s businesses, families, and students and will be working with the other levels of government to make that happen.

JG: It is refreshing to hear from this government that all options are on the table and there are no sacred cows. That said, many programs currently in place have positively impacted Canadian companies. What are your thoughts on how best to preserve what is good while making room for new results-based programs?

BC: We’re committed to doubling down on what works and looking critically at programs that aren’t serving Canadian entrepreneurs as best as they possibly can.

For example, during the Innovation Agenda consultations, we are hearing that startups and SMEs find the process of navigating regulatory requirements burdensome. Our Government will simplify how businesses access government programs and services and align important services to create the best conditions for the success of Canadians companies.

As our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “Leadership should be focused on extending the ladder of opportunity to everyone. On pursuing policies that create growth, and on ensuring that growth produces tangible results for everyone”

JG: Small businesses have often voiced their dissatisfaction at the difficulty of getting government contracts. What is your plan on addressing their concerns?

BC: Small businesses are the growth engine of the Canadian economy. They support middle-class jobs, and are owned by middle-class Canadians. Which is why we are looking at all possibilities to help them grow – including how to make it as easy as possible for small businesses to tap into government contracts, particularly given the link between these contracts and export opportunities. It’s also not just the dollar value of the government contract that’s important for our companies; it’s what the contract means. It’s something they can point to as an endorsement on the international stage which helps them enormously.

Opening up procurement opportunities is one way we could actively support our innovative companies and help position them to be able to scale. We understand that our success in making Canada a top innovation hub will be a collaborative effort that will likely require us to change the way we have been doing business. We are listening to Canadians, organizations like Communitech, institutions like the University of Waterloo and small businesses to find out how best to help.

JG: How do you feel the government can best support and encourage Canadian companies to innovate and invest in R&D?

BC: This is an incredibly important question, and one that we’ve asked throughout the Innovation Agenda Consultation process. We want to hear the thoughts and ideas of Canadians from all walks of life. This collaborative approach is essential because every sector of society – from the business community to universities and colleges, the not-for-profit sector, social entrepreneurs and Indigenous business leaders – pulls some of the levers that drive innovation, growth and well-being.

Budget 2016 was the start of our Government tackling this problem. We announced a series of measures to support innovation, including new federal support for world-class discovery research and maintaining funding that will help commercialize promising scientific discoveries.

As we move forward, we’ll be looking at how to foster more partnerships among businesses, research institutions and governments so that these hotbeds of innovation become magnets for global talent, investors and leading companies. These partnerships will strengthen value chains by connecting Canadian suppliers to large anchor firms, accelerating the commercialization of ideas and expanding market access.

JG: Can you provide an example of an area in which small businesses struggle with the most when trying to grow their innovative business?

BC: We’ve chatted a little bit about what I’ve heard from entrepreneurs on access to capital, but I think we also need to talk about access to talent.

Innovative small businesses require top technical and management talent to guide them through the scale-up process. As part of our drive for an entrepreneurial and creative society, we want to prepare Canada’s workforce to embrace technological shifts, boost the number of Canadians receiving training in the skills of the new economy, and ensure that efficient pathways exist for top global talent to come to Canada to contribute to our pool of highly skilled and educated people

We’ll be working very hard to ensure that our approach is inclusive and considers all under-represented groups – in particular, women, young and Indigenous entrepreneurs – so that we are tapping into our nation’s full potential and are all contributing to Canada’s economic growth.

JG: What are one or two initiatives that you are personally working on in the upcoming months related to the Innovation Agenda?

BC: Beyond participating in the Waterloo Innovation Summit this week, I am thrilled about hosting the Canadian Women’s Entrepreneurship Conference on November 9 in Toronto. This will be an opportunity for women entrepreneurs from across the country to come together, discuss the challenges that women entrepreneurs are facing, and collaborate on ideas to better support women in business.

I am also very optimistic about our Accelerated Growth Service pilot project. The Accelerated Growth Service is a new initiative to help high-impact firms scale up and further their global competitiveness. It is a flexible program we launched in June that recognizes that each business is different and brings together key supports, such as financing solutions, advisory services, and export and innovation support, to help them succeed.

JG: We are here in Waterloo and guests are arriving for the Waterloo Innovation Summit (WIS). What do you hope guests to our region and your visiting colleagues will take away from the next few days?

BC: Everyone has a role to play in making sure we achieve our goal of becoming a world-leading innovation hub. I would like everyone participating in the WIS to come away with a stronger understanding of how they can contribute to our shared success in the new knowledge economy.

For those who are visiting the Region for the first time, I hope that they are able to see what is working here and why. You really have to come here to understand it. The tours of the ecosystem, our companies, our world-class institutions, Communitech and others, will give the participants a good overview.

JG: Thank you for doing this, Minister.

BC: My pleasure; great to see you again.

In Position is a monthly column focusing on communications, public relations and government relations for tech companies. It is produced for Communitech News by the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto.