Analysis: Updated mandate for federal innovation minister shows a Prime Minister preoccupied with COVID-19

Mark Lowey
January 20, 2021

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remains much more focused on his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic than on science and innovation priorities, judging by the PM’s updated mandate letter to the minister of innovation.

The “supplementary” mandate letters to 36 federal Cabinet ministers update the letters the Prime Minister issued on Dec. 13, 2019, before COVID-19 took hold in Canada.

The January 15, 2021 letter to François-Philippe Champagne, appointed minister of innovation, science and industry just three days earlier after a Cabinet shuffle, mentions the word “innovation” once. Champagne is instructed to support Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland to create more than 1 million jobs “by leveraging the strength of Canada’s innovation economy.”

However, the letter doesn’t direct Champagne to tend to Canada’s innovation ecosystem, even though innovation experts and business groups are stepping up calls for the federal government to fix a “weak and out of balance” ecosystem and innovation performance some describe as “catastrophic.”

In October 2020, more than 130 Canadian tech leaders wrote in an open letter to Trudeau that “in the years since 2015, innovation is barely mentioned,” and they called for a bold, cohesive plan for innovation in Canada.

Yet Trudeau’s letter doesn’t mention the Liberal government’s innovation showpiece, the $918-million Superclusters initiative, even though a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) in October 2020 determined the five superclusters are unlikely to attain their goals for job creation and GDP growth. The PBO’s report used data about the superclusters that was seven months out of date.

There is no mention in the mandate letter to Champagne of Ottawa’s Innovation and Skills Plan, the Strategic Innovation Fund, Canada’s national data strategy or Patent Collective – all things the government has pointed to as strengthening the nation’s innovation ecosystem.

In comparison, the mandate letter states that “fighting the pandemic must be our top priority;” it mentions COVID-19 and the federal response to the pandemic more than a half-dozen times.

The letter directs Champagne to work with Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Joyce Murray, minister of digital government, to support the work of the COVID-19 Exposure Notification App Advisory Council.

Trudeau also instructs Champagne to continue leading the Made in Canada Project, Canada’s plan to mobilize industry to fight COVID-19, by supporting Canadian manufacturers of personal protective equipment to build domestic supply chains, and to work with Mary Ng, minister of international trade, small business and export promotion, to secure COVID-related supply chains.

The letter tasks Champagne with investing in Canada’s long-term bio-manufacturing capacity, “to ensure that Canadian scientists, researchers and post-secondary institutions have the tools and resources they need to advance discovery of vaccines and therapeutics to combat COVID-19.”

Trudeau directs Champagne, as the minister responsible for the National Research Council of Canada, and working with Anita Anand, minister of public services and procurement, to support the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force with respect to vaccine purchasing.

Champagne also is to work in close collaboration with Hajdu, Anand, and Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous services, on the ongoing work with provinces and territories and Indigenous leaders to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are efficiently and widely distributed to Canadians.

In addition, Champagne is to evaluate sector-specific pressures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, where appropriate, work with Deputy Prime Minister Freeland “to tailor support for those sectors hit hardest, such as travel and tourism, hospitality and cultural industries like the performing arts.”

The petroleum industry isn’t mentioned as a sector hit by COVID-19, even though the demand for oil and associated products, such as jet fuel and gasoline, has fallen due to a decline in vehicle use and airline travel because of pandemic-related restrictions.

Champagne also is to work with Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, and with the support of Jim Carr, Ottawa’s special representative for the Prairies, to implement the Net-Zero Accelerator Fund in supporting Canada’s manufacturing, transportation, natural resource and energy sectors as they work to transform to meet a net-zero emissions future.

Trudeau instructs Champagne to work with Catherine McKenna, minister of infrastructure and communities, O’Regan, and with the support of Carr, to ensure Canada is the most competitive jurisdiction in the world for clean technology companies, including by supporting investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy storage and next-generation clean energy and technology solutions.

Champagne also is to support Alghabra and O’Regan in making zero-emissions vehicles more affordable, “while investing in more charging stations across the country, and ensure Canada is globally competitive in building zero-emissions vehicles and batteries.”

However, there is no mention of hydrogen-fueled vehicles, despite the federal government’s release in December 2020 of a hydrogen strategy for Canada and a collaboration with the Alberta government to build the country’s first “hydrogen node.” Hydrogen isn’t mentioned in O’Regan’s mandate letter, either.

The PM’s letter directs Champagne to continue to support efforts by Bernadette Jordan, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, to develop a comprehensive “blue economy” strategy aligned with Canada’s economic recovery and focused on growing Canada’s ocean economy. But there is no mention of addressing the problem of Canadian scientists no longer being able to do cutting-edge deep-sea research because of the nation’s fleet of research vessels are outdated and unreliable.


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