National Column: PM on a high-stakes mission, set against idyllic backdrops

by Paul Wells

The appointment was right there last Friday in Justin Trudeau’s public itinerary, which the Prime Minister’s Office sends daily to every Ottawa reporter who cares to sign up. “The prime minister will attend the Dock Innovators Retreat,” it said. “Closed to media.”

Attend the what?

Googling the mysterious term provided no further information.

I was finishing a vacation and assumed some other reporter would ask what the PM had done with his day – normally an interesting question. But by this week nobody had asked. So I did, and here is what I’ve found.

The retreat was a real thing. The dock in question is attached to a sprawling cottage somewhere north of Toronto. Dock and cottage belong to Magna CEO Donald Walker, who welcomed 30 corporate CEOs and tech leaders for a two-day gathering whose correct and somewhat precious name is the “Dock (Un)Conference.”

The, uh, Dock was held under the auspices of the C100, an association of Canadian expats working in Silicon Valley. Since 2010 the C100 has been the organized expression of a kind of yearning: that a rising generation of innovative Canadian entrepreneurs won’t have to leave Canada to build the next billion-dollar startup.

The C100 website calls the Dock a “highly curated event … on the future of tech and where Canada can lead.” John Stackhouse, a former Globe and Mail editor now working at the Royal Bank, did the curating.

Guests included GE Canada president Elyse Allan, Jordan Banks from Facebook, Tiff Macklem, who left the Bank of Canada to become dean of the Rotman School of Management, Nadir Mohamed, a former Rogers CEO who now runs a venture-capital firm called Scale Up Ventures that gets half its money from the Ontario government, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu. And a mostly younger cohort of rising stars in technology-intensive companies in Canada and California, including Angela Strange, Jennifer Holmstrom and Brendan Frey.

Trudeau appeared in the conference agenda as “Special Guest” and spoke at lunch on Friday. But he also wanted to hear from his hosts because they share a goal: to encourage entrepreneurs and tech companies to stay in Canada in a bid to boost economic growth and enhance Canadians’ standard of living.

This was the second time in three weeks that Trudeau has showed up at a tech conference in an idyllic locale. At the beginning of July he was at Sun Valley in Idaho for an annual retreat where he met a succession of blue-chip CEOs: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, GM’s Mary Barra, IBM’s Ginni Rometty.

Justin Trudeau’s goal here extends well beyond schmoozing. As he said in Davos in January (more
billionaires! More scenery!), attracting foreign investment will be “a key priority” of his government. He does not want an increase on the scale of a rounding error. He wants a massive increase in the amount of investment coming into Canada. The country saw such a thing once before, after the Second World War, when Europe was levelled, America ravenous, and Canada’s national resources desperately needed by both. What would drive another investment boom now, I asked a Trudeau adviser – resources again?


Trudeau’s PMO and senior ministers are preoccupied with the firms and the entrepreneurs who get their start in Canada and make their fortune elsewhere. They’re concerned about recent raiding expeditions by Google and others to recruit Canadian leaders in the field of artificial intelligence.

Among people who could work anywhere in the world, size and coolness matter when they decide where to move or whether to stay. Waterloo has managed to become a magnet for global expertise in theoretical physics and quantum computing. Over the next year the Trudeau government will seek to reinforce or shore up Canada’s advantage in three emerging fields: quantum tech; artificial intelligence; and big data and analytics.

Four big themes will drive the Trudeau economic policy through next year’s budget: innovation,
infrastructure, immigration and foreign investment. Where will the money come from? Trudeau has been talking to executives at Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, which controls $5 trillion in investments worldwide.

Increasing Canada’s share of that titanic portfolio would make a lot of things possible. Trudeau is devoting more and more of his time to figuring out how to make that happen. So are his senior economic ministers – Bill Morneau, Chrystia Freeland, Navdeep Bains. This is how the government is spending its summer.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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