Looking to host a fully democratic conversation, where everything was on the table, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted an AMA (ask me anything) event at Kinaxis in Kanata North on Monday.
While topics ranged from the environment to the Charter of Rights and even Ukraine, the hot topic for tech park attendees centered on talent retention, women in STEM, and supporting growth in Canada’s tech industry.
Prime Minister Trudeau opened by saying the event was “an opportunity for me to hear directly from you on the things that you’re preoccupied with, and maybe for you to hear some answers from me on where I think we’re going and what the kinds of things that, as a country, as a government, as communities, as a tech sector, we can and should be working on.”
He said the event was an invitation to a fulsome, democratic conversation in full sentences – and that “so much of politics these days is about soundbites.”
Before he took questions from the rapt audience, the Prime Minister lauded Kanata-Carleton MP Jenna Sudds for “believing in the tech sector here, boosting Kanata, getting me to come to an awful lot of events… there’s a lot going on here.”
Kanata North Business Association executive director Jamie Petten started the discussion off by asking Trudeau about Canada’s innovation agenda, and how Kanata North can contribute to the country’s aspirations for tech growth on a global scale.
Noting that he was last in Kanata in October for Nokia’s $300M investment announcement, made with municipal, provincial and federal partners, Trudeau said it’s important for the federal government to continue investing in Canadian companies that are growing and scaling up.
“But we also want to draw in global investors to contribute to a stronger ecosystem where we can get more Canadian startups to come around them. It’s about getting that balance right,” Trudeau said.
He noted that Nokia could have chosen to put its new building – one of five global research and development hubs for the country anywhere, but the company chose Kanata not because of the federal government’s $40-million investment.
“We knew it had nothing to do or very little to do with us. It had everything to do with the talent pool that’s here. You mentioned the engineers, the students, the researchers, the folks here in Kanata. The folks here in Kanata who are as well a part of Canada. We have the highest educated population in the OECD. We have a consistent level of engineering and science quality that is competitive with the world around,” he said.
Attracting the talent
Erika Butler, a Kinaxis program manager asked Trudeau what his government was doing to get more women working in STEM.
Trudeau noted the statistics that companies that have more women on boards withstand economic challenges better than companies that don’t, and offered the same can be said for tech companies that have a higher proportion of women engineers.
“These are things that people are starting to see, that gender balance and inclusive policies are not just about sort of ticking the box or looking like you’re a modern, progressive company. It’s actually about better solutions and better quality of output. There are specific policies that we need to make sure we’re continuing to put in place a number of them around encouraging women and girls to get into STEM programs in schools. There’s a lot of really important initiatives going on across the country around that.”
Raising a concern at the top of minds for many Kanata North businesses, another Kinaxis employee asked Trudeau what the government was doing to support the development and retention of Canada’s tech talent, referring to brain drain to the U.S. and Silicon Valley.
Trudeau noted his government’s global skills strategy, a streamlined visa process which over the past few years has allowed 63,000 engineers, tech workers, scientists and innovators come to Canada within two weeks. Trudeau also noted that Canada’s postsecondary institutions are “churning out” top talent, and his goal is to keep that expertise in Canada.
He noted the Inflation Reduction Act put forward in the U.S., that is drawing a lot of high tech and clean tech investment.
“Now, they’ve got really deep pockets in the reserve currency, so they can go way further into debt than we can,” Trudeau said. “It’s hard to compete one to one with that. But we’re making sure we’re remaining competitive. And some of the investments that we’ve seen coming to Canada are great.”
“Yes, we do have to put some money on the table, but we also have a lot of inherent advantages that the rest of the world isn’t necessarily able to compete with. We have a level of political stability, a level of openness to immigration, a level of quality of life, health care, quality public education, the kinds of things that people know we have already.”
Prime Minister commits to boosting tech
Kanata North City Councilor Cathy Curry asked the Prime Minister about housing and transportation in the area, stating Kanata North was a special economic district. She noted the city would be applying in June for some of the $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund.
Prime Minister Trudeau said that that often when massive investments like the Nokia plan are announced, concern is ‘where are all these people going to live?’
He added the building fund would “empower and enable municipalities to figure out how to unlock even more housing constructions in their communities in ways that make sense.”
“Does it mean a lot more density around LRT spaces? Does it mean shifts in zoning to allow for multiple levels? Does it allow an acceleration of the permitting process so that developers can move quicker but also responsibly? What are the solutions that are right for Kanata to accelerate, to create a lot more housing? That’s what you’re going to be able to apply for in the Housing Accelerator Fund.”
Speaking on rapid transit, Trudeau said his government is “absolutely committed” to infrastructure investment in that area. “We just put in place permanent rapid transit funding for cities, understanding that cities plan for rapid transit may be ten years out and yet are on like a one- or two-year cycle of knowing that the money is going to come in. So that kind of predictability is going to allow for it. But it’s not up to the federal government… as what you need here in Kanata to draw lines on the map.”
When asked how he would help tech companies scale, Trudeau he said he hopes the Canadian Innovation Corporation will help.
“There are no easy answers on it, but know that it’s something we’re absolutely focused on and something that, quite frankly, I want to hear from all of you on as well, what we can do to unlock the key to staying in Canada,” he said.
“I think one of the things that we do offer is a level of stability that might be a little more attractive now than it was even a couple of months ago. And we’ll use those advantages we can. We’ll just keep trucking along steadily as hardworking, earnest Canadians, drawing the best from around the world and build success for ourselves and contribute to the world. And hopefully we will be able to land a few big platforms that will be home growth. It’s coming, but we’ve just got to keep working on it.”
Written by Melanie Coulson