The Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group meant to advocate on behalf of Canada’s technology sector, has hired an Executive Director in the form of Ben Bergen, 31, who previously worked as executive assistant to present-day Liberal Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, and previous to that as an advisor to former Ontario Transportation Minister and ex-Mayor of Winnipeg Glen Murray.
Bergen managed Chrystia Freeland’s campaign in the University-Rosedale riding, where she is now sitting MP, during last year’s federal election.
Mr. Bergen was also a candidate in the 2010 Toronto municipal election while pursuing political science and economics studies at the University of Toronto.
The Council of Canadian Innovators began actively looking for an Executive Director in December, just a couple months after an October meeting at the Drake Hotel in Toronto that saw ex-Research In Motion/BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie addressing representatives from several of Canada’s tech giants, including Shopify, Hootsuite, Vision Critical, D2L, Wattpad, Vidyard, and OMERS Ventures director John Ruffolo.
Just days before that meeting, Ruffolo wrote an open letter in which he wondered, “should there be a voice from the Startup Community clearly laying out what they believe the role of government should be?”
“Something has been gnawing at me for quite some time and it has really surfaced during this upcoming Federal election,” wrote Ruffolo, continuing, “I believe, as many of you do, that the Innovation sector represents the Future for Canada. It will be the engine of growth, wealth, and employment for our great nation.”
Jim Balsillie followed Ruffolo’s letter with an editorial in the Globe & Mail, writing, “The global market for ideas is created primarily in the United States by judges, legislators and agency heads. The rules for this market change are frequently based on aggressive lobbying by interested parties. Those parties are usually tech companies with broad swaths of intellectual property and strategies for capturing more wealth from them.”
Apple’s budget for lobbying the U.S. government in 2014 was $4.1 million, according to Politico. Amazon spent $4.7 million, while Facebook spent $9.3 million and Google spent $17.4 million.
Balsillie’s assertion is that for the past decade, a policy of laissez-faire “let the market decide” policy has left Canada’s innovation sector underdeveloped, a situation that had been allowed to drift into complacency thanks to over-reliance on resources and the oil & gas sector.
Meanwhile, every other developed country on Earth sees the need for advocacy, and works non-stop to ensure that their interests and the interests of their most prominent companies are well protected.
But not in Canada.
If there is an obstacle to overcome on the part of the Council of Canadian Innovators, it will be a mild case of libertarian resistance within start-up culture that automatically swaps out the word “investment” for “hand-out” whenever government gets involved in helping companies work towards exporting their goods or services on a global scale and tends to regard tiny, decentralized, unregulated clusters of like-minded entrepreneurs as preferable to anything that might smack of a “gatekeeper”.
Such tensions will perhaps add a little grit to Mr. Bergen’s job of bringing various stakeholders around a single table to discuss the best way forward for Canada’s tech sector.
But with the federal budget next week likely to acknowledge the importance of innovation in Canada’s economic future, the Council of Canadian Innovators will quickly find that it has more important things on its agenda.