by Paul Wells
Canada must be a nation of innovators. “684 ideas for #CdnInnovation,” Navdeep Bains, the federal minister for innovation, science and economic development, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Have you submitted yours yet?”
Bains added a link to the website for the federal government’s “Innovation Agenda,” which features a one-minute video assuring visitors that, indeed, “Canada is a nation of innovators.”
Perhaps this is because they have had so much practice. By my count, Bains is the fourth industry minister (as people in his office used to be called) to launch an innovation agenda since the turn of the century. Jean ChrÈtien’s minister Allan Rock had one. Stephen Harper sought to contrast with the Liberals by refusing to mention innovation. Then he appointed a panel on innovation, and then, noticing several years later that he was still prime minister, he appointed another.
Now we have another federal innovation agenda. With a panel. And a public consultation – one of 70 public consultations this eager new government has launched since it came to office nine months ago.
That’s a seven with a zero at the end.
If you run into a Liberal this summer, you will probably not escape without being consulted about something. Bains’ colleague Catherine McKenna wants to know what #CANClimateAction you’re taking.
Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, hopes you’re #EngagedInER. (That’s “electoral reform.”) There are consultations on trade deals, on home mail delivery, on appointments to high office.
Unfortunately, the number of consultations may be outstripping the available supply of Canadians with clever ideas.
A month ago, I wrote here that Monsef’s electoral reform consultation came with its own Twitter hashtag, #EngagedinER, which people were encouraged to use as they spread the word about their own local meetings, in garages or living rooms or church basements, around the theme of changes to Canada’s electoral system. Back then, the hashtag had only been used six times.
I wondered whether I’d provoke an avalanche of #EngagedinER activity by putting that information in a prominent newspaper. I needn’t have worried. As of Tuesday, the hashtag had been used 41 times, 26 of them from a single account (a woman in Guelph who seems genuinely excited about a chance to debate electoral reform). If spontaneous local electoral-reform meetings are popping up all over Canada in the dead of summer, I can find no evidence of it.
Bains says he has received 684 ideas for #CdnInnovation. This looks like innovative counting. The government’s (fourth!) innovation website lists several dozen proposals submitted by earnest Canadians. Some ideas are repeated many times (start science and tech education earlier). Others are spectacularly off-brand (“Decrease immigration volumes”).
But the only way I can get the number of ideas to nearly 700 is to throw in another part of the website, which gathers social-media commentary from Twitter, Facebook and other platforms under the title, “What You’re Saying.”
I suppose it depends who “you” are. From Twitter, the website gathers input from such ordinary
Canadians as Bardish Chagger, the minister for small business; Kirsty Duncan, the minister for science; a public-relations staffer at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, which swims in lakes of provincial government funding; the federal Competition Bureau; and the Canadian embassy in Moscow.
Almost none of these “ideas” is an idea. They are mostly messages urging Canadians to submit their ideas.
On all of YouTube, two videos use the suggested #CdnInnovation hashtag. Both were posted by Bains’ own department. On one of them, the CEO of Shopify says it would be great if computer science were taught more broadly in schools. This has the virtue of being probably true, not a new idea, and outside federal jurisdiction.
There’s no need to assume bad faith on the part of all these ministers. Listening is better than not listening. If even four useful ideas come up, that’s four useful ideas. I won’t claim it’ll have been worth the money. That will really depend on the ideas. But the instinct to ask Canadians is understandable.
Will the outcome be healthy? It depends. The ominous apathy greeting Monsef’s electoral reform process, in particular, is striking. She argues that a referendum would not reach as many Canadians as other consultation methods. Her preferred method is off to a shaky start. A few dozen meetings, attended by the usual suspects, will not be a revolution in democratic legitimacy. They could, instead, reveal a lack of public engagement that would endanger the entire electoral-reform project.
Paul Wells is a national affairs columnist.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services