Tories want Canadians to catch up to digital wave
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, April 5, 2010 6:41AM EDT
OTTAWA - Canadians might love their Blackberries, their eBay shopping and their PVRs, but businesses in this country haven't embraced the new digital world as much as other competitive nations.
That worries the Conservative government, which has been advised repeatedly that technological-take up is directly linked to productivity and prosperity. The Tories plan to launch a major consultation to address the problem.
Industry Minister Tony Clement told The Canadian Press that he'll soon be announcing a discussion paper on the so-called "Digital Economy Strategy," and asking anybody who has a point of view to fire it off to Ottawa -- through Facebook, email or Canada Post.
"To me, it's also a broader context of not only our economic life online, but also our social and political life online," Clement said in an interview.
"All of the studies I've seen indicate that the more citizens have a facility to conduct various aspects of their life online, the more competitive that economy is on a number of indicators."
Clement will be joined by Heritage Minister James Moore for a look at improving digital content, and by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who will examine how well Canadians are trained at using and creating new technologies.
An advisory panel will help Clement analyse the feedback the government receives.
In the mid-to-late '90s, the previous Liberal government placed much attention on driving Canada on to the "information highway." That gave birth to the first e-commerce strategy, SchoolNet, with its focus on bringing the Web to schools and later communities, and to fixing Canada's laws to protect privacy and making Internet usage safer.
But that focus, under previous Industry Minister John Manley, eventually shifted to other things and Canada's primacy began to decline.
In the meantime, other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have already started to aggressively ride the digital wave.
The Council of Canadian Academies Expert Panel on Business Innovation last year noted that the average investment in information and communications technology per worker in Canada was only 60 per cent that of the American worker.
"Although Canada had been a leader in the past in things online and things digital, we had lost that leadership over the last 10 years or a dozen years, and this is something that takes constant effort to be a leader in," said Clement, who recently discussed the issue with Manley.
"You can't just be declared a leader one year, and then just sit back and expect the accolades to pour in."
While in the past the focus on the digital economy seemed to be on introducing consumers to new information and communications technology, and boosting that particular sector, it has become much broader.
Those who have advised the government in the past, such as the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), say the Conservatives must examine how every sector of the Canadian economy can better use digital technology.
That would include every industry from automotive to mining.
"Our success is going to have to be based on being better at the more sophisticated things, being more innovative," said ITAC President Bernard Courtois.
"We see it in our industry as some of our run of the mill knowledge jobs can be easily transferred away, but we still have people come and invest here because they have places where people have the top skills, where the best things can be done. That's true for our whole economy."
The government's related Rural Broadband Strategy is expected to start rolling out at about the same time.
There has been some delay in getting the $200 million in funding out the door to help connect rural and remote areas to high-speed Internet, but Clement says they've resolved the delays.
Announcements on which communities will get the cash will be made this spring, and actual "building" of that infrastructure in the fall. Clement said the delay was due to the fact that major telecom companies kept announcing their own new broadband projects, so the map of where the government needed to intervene kept changing.
"The next stage would be negotiating the contracts with the individual providers in the areas we've identified," Clement added.