The Honourable Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, Mélanie Joly, was a keynote speaker at the ‘State of the Island’ Economic Summit hosted by the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance (VIEA). She spoke to Douglas Editor Carla Sorrell about economic recovery in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island.
Carla Sorrell (CS): What advice would you give business owners at this time? What do you think is the most important thing that they need to think about?
Minister Joly (MJ): The idea for 2020, to deal with the pandemic and the economic crisis, is to find a way for business owners to survive, to weather the pandemic, and to keep their employees. To do that they have access to a lot of different measures from the federal government, starting with the wage subsidy (CEWS) and the rent relief program (CECRA) – which will be modified this week, and the support for small businesses (CIBA). We developed a new approach, which is offered by Western Economic Diversification (WD) for the west. Businesses can come and see us to access liquidity and help.
My advice to entrepreneurs would be, in order to help you weather this crisis and survive, please come and see us at Western Economic Diversification and we can help you find the right path to your success.
CS: You’ve had a lot of conversations with leaders in B.C.. What did you find unique about the state of the post pandemic economy in this region?
MJ: I’ve had good conversations with Walt Judas [Tourism Industry Association of BC], mayors Lisa Helps and Kennedy Stewart, numerous B.C chambers of commerce and CEOs. I’m very aware that the west is not a monolithic bloc, that the players are different in British Columbia. We have a regional economic development approach for the west, but I’m looking at how we can be a bit more B.C. specific. The economy is different, the geography is different, and that calls for a much more tailored approach. That’s something I want to act upon, to recognize the need for Ottawa to be closer to people in B.C. and to have more boots on the ground, to provide better support for entrepreneurs and people in B.C.
CS: From what you know now, what would a ‘Made in B.C.’ economic development plan look like?
MJ: I reached out to many of the entrepreneurs in the region and have many more conversations in the coming weeks. I’m very aware that some parts of the country have access to more resources when it comes to economic development, and B.C. is far away from us [Ottawa]. We have to do a better job to connect with people.
In this COVID time of economic crisis, information is key. By having access to more resources that could help businesses; access to information about the different programs that are available; and access also to technical help in terms of changing operations, marketing approaches or even balance sheets, is all important.
CS: In your keynote speech you talked about the Government’s support in saving and creating jobs. Where do you see opportunities for new jobs in the future?
MJ: Some sectors of the economy are going well, and others are much more impacted. I’ll give you examples: the tech sector and AI sector are doing well.
We’ve been there with the wage subsidy, in addition to the measures I’ve just talked to you about to help businesses keep employees, and also through WD. Nine thousand jobs were saved in B.C. alone, because of the work of WD. We’ve been providing a kind of micro credit agency on the ground for businesses.
Some sectors are much more impacted. We know that the tourism sector is not going well. I have spoken to Patrick Weiler, MP for Whistler, and know the impact there, and also on the Island. We know that the fisheries sector has been impacted by the fact that many restaurants closed and exports are not as easy as before. And we also know that the aerospace sector is very concerned with the fact that the airline sector is going through a rough patch right now because the demand for airline tickets has gone down dramatically. These are just [a few] examples.
We have to continue with very wide measures; we have to be much more region specific, but also sector specific. And so based on that, we have to have a much more tailored approach and perspective.
CS: Tourism has certainly been a hard hit sector here and globally. I know B.C. tourism operators are very interested in Alberta’s current pilot project for rapid COVID testing for international visitors on arrival to the province. I know this is a provincial decision, but I was wondering if you could comment on a federal approach that gives Canada a unified option to test for international travelers?
MJ: We’ve approved many rapid tests since the beginning of October, providing some to provinces so they can decide what to do with it. Maybe it’s for their own people, or maybe they want to entice travel in their own province. I’m convinced that Dr Bonnie Henry will have something to say about this. The allocation will be based on her strong advice.
What we know at the end of the day, and after having many discussions with the 20 ministers of tourism, is that it is an issue around the world – it is not only us who are seeing a very weakened tourism sector. Having seen many job losses in the tourism sector, we all agreed that it was much more important to support local tourism, eventually regional tourism, then national and international tourism.
We have to be very aware that at this point the spread of the virus is based on community transmission. We have to stop that spread and abide by social distancing rules. The relaunch of the tourism sector will be once the pandemic has stopped, which will be when vaccinations are available. And then my pledge to you and your readers, and Canadians, will be to have a strong plan to relaunch and make sure that Canadians discover their country, and that we entice people to support their tourism operators.
CS: What role will the green economy play in the government’s long term recovery plans? How can the clean energy sector in Western Canada benefit?
MJ: We know that while we’re fighting the pandemic, there’s another crisis which is climate change. We have a historical opportunity to seize, while we’re working on a strong recovery plan, we can really invest in clean tech. B.C. will help develop the clean tech sectors.
There are many sectors that can be supported, to make sure that we’re able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I think that we have to have a human approach to a recovery plan, because at the end of the day, jobs have been lost and we need to offer people jobs. We said that we would be doing everything to save jobs – I think it’s the first time since the Second World War that we’re using that term – but also create jobs. [In the 2020 Throne Speech, the Federal Government pledged to create one million jobs]. We hope that many of them will be linked to our green stimulus.
CS: Do you have any examples of some of the initiatives the government is supporting to reach its sustainability goals?
MJ: I have a couple of examples, but I’ve had to come to this virtually during the pandemic. Saltworks Technologies is a very well regarded and promising cleantech company. At the ‘State of the Island’ Summit there were many other services put forward, and I look forward to learning and discovering more about them.
I’ve been in close contact with Jonathan Wilkinson [Minister of the Environment and Climate Change] to see how we can attract investments in big businesses. We can not only support smaller businesses and the entire supply chain in the clean tech sector, but also businesses that want to do that green shift, and want to become much more efficient. That’s also my focus, making sure that our small businesses that are in the manufacturing or service sector are becoming more and more green themselves.
CS: Do you have anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
MJ: I know I’m not from B.C. but I’m very much aware that in order to have a closer tie and understand the value of the Federal Government, it is important for us, the federal government, to be much more on the ground in B.C.. [We want to be] more targeted to the reality of the people in different parts of the province, which are not all like Vancouver, for example.
My focus is how we can do that. How can we deliver on our promise to save and create jobs that are actually in line with people’s reality? My job is to defend the economic reality of people. Not only can I do that, but I want to deliver on that. That’s why I’m working on a much more targeted strategy, because I think we owe that to people in B.C.