The House

Spotlight on the budget: concerns about jobs, infrastructure and innovation

This week on a special edition of The House, Chris Hall travels through south western Ontario to talk to Canadians about what they want to see in the next federal budget. We talk about jobs with students at Queen's University, infrastructure with Mississaugua Mayor Bonnie Crombie, innovation with former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie and the automotive industry with a union head. Finally, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, gives us his assessment of the state of the economy.
Where should the Liberal government take the upcoming federal budget? The House crew hit the road to talk to Canadians about their priorities. (Shutterstock)

The goal was to escape the "Ottawa bubble."

So The House team packed its bags, got in a minivan and hit the road to talk to Canadians about the federal government's upcoming budget, and find out what their priorities are.

Right from the beginning, the number one item on the list of most people was pretty clear: jobs.

We pulled in at the On Route in Mallorytown, Ont., just before 8 a.m. on Monday morning, the same location Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited when he kicked off his cross-country tour in January.

Trevor Pritchard, clothed in red plaid and a Detroit Red Wings tuque, sat alone at  a table with his massive coffee, the unmistakable red and yellow cup declaring it's 'Roll Up The Rim' time in Canada.

Producer Paul MacInnis and Chris Hall talk to Trevor Pritchard at the En Route near Mallorytown, Ont. (CBC)

"Most people that leave college want to go out and get good jobs that they've been taught... the theory is all there," he told host Chris Hall.

We also ran into one 25-year-old woman grabbing a coffee on her way from Montreal back home to Barrie. She works two jobs, but one day hopes to own her own bakery. 

For now, the goals are simpler.

"I just want to move out of my parents' house," she said. 

'A drop in the bucket': Municipalities need more on the infrastructure front

The House host Chris Hall talks to Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie about her city's infrastructure needs. (Bonnie Crombie/Twitter)

After stops at Queen's University and Belleville, we reached Mississaugua.

Driving against traffic is one thing, trying to leave to get to downtown Toronto is another.

One woman waiting for the GO Bus said she spends four hours commuting every day. 

"It's the second busiest terminal in all of the GTA," said Mississaugua Mayor Bonnie Crombie.

She's on the hunt for infrastructure money, but wants to be able to control where the Phase 2 of Ottawa's infrastructure funding goes.

"We want them to give us the money so we can decide based on our priorities," she said.

On the eve of a digital agriculture revolution

New technology can help farmers track how well their cows are faring and adjust their diets accordingly. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

Old MacDonald's farm could become much more innovative if the federal government listens to Evan Fraser, the head of the University of Guelph's Food Institute.

He worked with Dominic Barton, the chair of the expert panel advising the government on the development of a long-term economic strategy, on how to capitalize Canada's agricultural and food processing industry.

"With climate change food is expected to be harder to produce. There is a strong likelihood agriculture will rise in importance," he explained from his campus office.

With its abundance of land and freshwater, Canada could become a global leader, he argued.

Evan Fraser talks digital agriculture with Chris Hall. (CBC)

The same technology that's propelled other industries, like robotics and data analytics, are now coming home to farm.

"We have to imagine a tractor driving through a field and the tractor itself senses where it is on the field and plants the right seed at the right time and gives it the right amount of fertiliser. Or a robotic dairy barn that tracks the life and welfare of the cow in real time and tailors the diet that cow receives" said Fraser.

Some of that innovation is already tangible on campus. Its Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre recently invented compostable single-serve coffee pods for the Keurig coffee machine, made almost entirely from plant materials and reclaimed coffee bean skins.

Is the federal government heading in the right direction when it comes to innovation?

Jim Balsillie former co-CEO of Research In Motion says governments focus on tweaking the same programs and tools that have been in place for the past 30 years to promote innovation, when they need to think outside the box. (Reutrers)

The founder of the Centre for International Governance Innovation says talking about encouraging innovation doesn't mean much if the government won't heed calls to implement an intellectual property strategy.

"Innovation without a national IP strategy is philanthropy. You invent it and invest in it and others get the benefits," said Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Research In Motion, the Canadian company responsible for Blackberry.

The persistent critic of the government's approach to innovation said a national IP strategy is the base of a bucket.

"If you don't have a strategy for protecting and owning your intellectual property it doesn't matter how much input you put into it, it will always leak out," he said from his home in Guelph.

"Canada has put hundreds of millions of dollars of inputs into innovation over the past several decades and we've had zero growth, and we have to ask the reason why."

In Kitchener-Waterloo, The House team visited two young entrepreneurs who have a few thoughts about what Ottawa could do to help.

Kurtis McBride, CEO and co-founder of Miovision shows The House the equipment used to track traffic. He's invented a way to adjust an entire network of traffic lights in real time, according to real traffic conditions. (CBC)

Kurtis McBride, the CEO and co-founder of Miovision, echoed Balsillie's point that the thinking needs to change in Ottawa.

His Kitchener-based company has created a way to adjust an entire network of traffic lights in real time, according to real traffic conditions. 

He says Canada has hundreds of start ups, but those waiting to jump to the next level need different kinds of assistance

"Rather than saying, 'Well if we we do things eventually scale ups will emerge, we need to say, 'What are the top 100 companies that are already in Canada, that are already winning globally and how do we make a slight change to procurement, to regulatory environments, to trade rules so that those companies expand rapidly," he said

"And ultimately the country benefits."

Adam Belsher, the CEO of Magnet Forensics, is looking to partner with co-developers like the Canadian Border Service Agency and the RCMP as they continue to develop products to uncover child exploitation and terrorism quickly.

Magnet Forensics develops software that recovers data on hard drives and the internet for investigations by police, military and intelligence agencies.

"There's a lot of risk for us, we have to invest a lot of money I would love a partner...There are lots of government agencies to partner with us who will go arm and arm with us, share the risk and help you build a solution that you can not only sell to Canadian companies and Canadian public safety but take it to the U.S… and sell the solution globally," he said from his office in Waterloo, Ont.

"Work with your indigenous Canadian companies to make them more successful. The Americans do this very well. The South Koreans do this well. The Israelis do this well. They help you get stronger so you can compete on the global stage in an effective way."

Innovation could be key to growing Canada's economy, but some members of the old guard don't want to be left out.

Unifor's Tim MacKinnon represents 1,4000 workers at the GM plant in St. Catharines.

He argues the auto industry might not employ as many people as it used to, but it's still a big contributor to the Canadian economy.

"Sometimes we get the short end of the stick, because people don't realize what we do and how important we are," he said.

"We are a big portion of the GDP, people need to understand that."

Expect to pay tolls, higher property taxes to pay for infrastructure, warns David Dodge

David Dodge responds to reporters questions during the time he was governor of the Bank of Canada in 2008. He says the world economy might be better off if policy-makers bumped interest rates a little bit higher. (The Canadian Press)

"He doesn't have a lot of manoeuvring room."

Former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge argues Finance Minister Bill Morneau has a tough task ahead of him. But he' not too concerned about the higher than promised deficits, or the lack of a clear roadmap to get back to balance.

"When you're projecting that far out you're in Never Never Land. It's not something you can really project. Let's think much more about the next five years and I think [Morneau] is going to run deficits for the next five years of relatively small amounts," he said.

However, Dodge says that Canadians need to pay to prop up needed infrastructure spending and the Liberal government needs to do a better job of getting that message out there.

"If we want good infrastructure we're going to have to pay for it. We're going to have to pay for it either in tolls, or we're going to have to pay for it in water rates or we're going to have to pay for it in additional property taxes in some way or another," David Dodge told The House ahead of the looming federal budget.

The centrepiece of last Finance Minister's last budget was a $120-billion infrastructure plan, rolling out over 10 years. That number was updated in the fall economic update, showing the government is now planning for $186 billion worth of programs, unfolding over the next 11 years. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

"The government can't go on investing in infrastructure, borrowing money to invest infrastructure, unless there's a future revenue stream, which is going to service that."

Dodge said the government has been reluctant spreading that message, a talking point he characterised as critical.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has previously hinted that measure like tolls are a possibility.

"People should expect on an ongoing basis that we're going to find the most cost-effective way to build infrastructure in this country," he told host Chris Hall back in November, responding to a question whether people should expect to pay more to use new infrastructure.