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Canada's tech economy: a tale of two movies

Last Friday, the Conservative Party unveiled its platform for the upcoming election and, as far as technology is concerned, it’s got about as much substance as a script to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The platform pays lip service to science and technology and focuses on five priorities: “building world-class infrastructure, encouraging businesses to adopt digital technologies, supporting digital skills development, fostering the growth of Canadian companies supplying digital technologies to global markets and creating made-in-Canada content across all platforms, to bring Canada to the world.”

The paper – the technology stuff starts on page 15 – is scanty on the details as to how those goals will be achieved, with one weird exception about how spectrum will be set aside for “emergency responders” in the next auction of wireless airwaves. Why that is the sole, specific detail in there bears some investigation. There is, once again, a promise that a full digital economy strategy will be presented after the election. Not making it part of the platform seems pretty indicative of how technological matters figure into Conservative priorities – they don’t.

In any event… a lacklustre platform in this regard is hardly surprising. As I detailed a few weeks ago when the election was called, the Conservative government has been anything but progressive toward science and technology during its tenure.

The Liberals, the only other party with a realistic chance of forming a government, were a little better in their platform, but just barely. The Liberals plan to use some proceeds of the next wireless auction to help fund expansion of broadband to rural and remote areas, and they intend to offer tax credits for investing in tech startup companies. Those are good starts, but they’ll hardly make Canada a world technological power.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau expanded a bit on those plans in an online chat yesterday wherein he made some additional promises, such as pushing for the functional separation of telecom companies and setting aside wireless spectrum for new companies in the next auction. The fact that none of those really big promises were in the party’s platform paper seems to suggest Garneau was simply pandering to an online crowd that is already onside with such issues.

It’s worth mentioning that in its platform paper, the NDP did suggest a few solid courses of necessary action such as reversing the current government’s 2006 directive to telecom regulators to lay off and a ban of usage-based billing. Of course, the NDP is unlikely to ever hold power so in a best-case scenario the party might horse trade some of its technology positions in exchange for supporting a minority government. Alas, as is always the case, the parties with the least to lose are always the ones with the most to say.

I couldn’t help but picture a pair of movies when reading through the Conservative and Liberal platforms, hence the theme of this post. Canada has long been blessed with a plethora of natural resources, from oil and gas to lumber and minerals, which have formed the entire foundation of our prosperity. As such, we’ve never been forced to be smart in a way that smaller, less-resource-based countries – like Japan, for example – have been. It’s no surprise, then, that our governments don’t put much emphasis on science and technology. As long as the oil keeps a-pumpin’, the goods times will keep a-rollin’.

If you haven’t seen Fubar, you’re missing out on an all-time great Canadian classic comedy. The movie is about a pair of wastoids, Terry and Dean, who have no real purpose in their lives besides partying and “givin’ ‘er.” Aside from the silly laughs, though, the movie did tell a great humanizing story in Dean’s battle with testicular cancer. The overriding result is that it’s hard to watch Fubar without thinking, “Hey, I know people like that.”

Last year, the sequel saw the lovable idiots find an actual purpose – they moved to Fort McMurray in northern Alberta to work on the oil fields. The best quote from the movie, from the headbanger-wisdom-dispensing Dean, seems to summarize successive Canadian governments’ stance on technology: “Knowledge of non-knowledge is power.” Here’s the trailer.

The other movie that comes to mind also came out last year and you’ve probably heard of it, nominated for Best Picture as it was. The Social Network told the story of nerdy Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook. There was a similar amount of booze and partying involved, but the end result was distinctly different: the protagonists managed to build a multibillion-dollar technological juggernaut. It’s a pretty big contrast from Dean convincing Terry to break his leg on purpose so he could collect worker’s compensation. In a nutshell, it’s Canada versus the United States.

Is that too harsh of a comparison? Perhaps. One movie was clearly meant to be an award-contending drama while the other was a simple stoner comedy. But in a way, that seems to be a pretty apt description of the difference between the U.S. and Canadian economies.

Peter Nowak is an award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling book Sex, Bombs and Burgers. He has been a staff writer for the CBC, National Post and New Zealand Herald, while his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, South China Morning Post, Sydney Morning Herald and the Globe and Mail, among others. His personal blog can be found at