Credit: Mélanie Joly via Twitter

Joly attends the recent G20 Tourism Ministers Meeting

With an eye to post-pandemic recovery, the federal minister of economic development says she’ll be consulting with local business owners in January

It may not fix Western alienation, but it’s a welcome move. To better support B.C. businesses, the federal government recently proposed opening a regional economic development agency focused on the province. The country’s seventh, the new agency would operate separately from Western Economic Diversification Canada, which currently serves B.C. and the Prairies.

We chatted with Mélanie Joly, minister of economic development and official languages, about what that new agency means for B.C. companies and entrepreneurs. “We’ve been there since the beginning of the pandemic. We’re here now, and we will be there in the future,” Joly said from Ottawa. “Please contact Western Economic Diversification to have access to information. We’re here to help.”

What’s behind the decision to create a regional development agency dedicated to B.C.?

We’ve treated the West as a monolithic bloc, which it isn’t. Since the creation of the latest agency for the West, Western Economic Diversification, in [1987], we’ve seen the incredible growth in the demography but also the economy of B.C. And so it was time for the federal government to recognize that fact, and to make sure that B.C. people had access to economic development levers that were done by BCers for BCers.

I also think that during the pandemic, what we've seen is that our economic development agencies across the country were instrumental for entrepreneurs to have access to different pay measures, and also to protect jobs. We’ve been there through Western Economic Diversification to protect 10,000 jobs, but having a greater presence all across B.C. will enhance our capacity to connect on the ground with entrepreneurs.

You recently tweeted that after talking to business owners across the Prairies and B.C., you learned that their economic challenges and concerns were quite different than in other parts of the country, especially during the pandemic. Can you elaborate on what you saw?

As a Québécois, I know how much you can’t take for granted the relationship with the federal government. And having a strong federal presence on the ground makes a world of difference, and people understanding what’s available to them [from] the federal government, and also increasing trust toward what can be done in this country by the federal government.

What I also saw during the pandemic was people running after information. And when you have an economic development agency, it’s a point of contact which is kind of a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs. So the issue we have in B.C. is that there’s only an office in Vancouver, and there’s none across the different regions. And the geography is very different from elsewhere in the country, and there are also very clear demands that are different.

For example, people in the Whistler region and on Vancouver Island that are in the tourism sector were really, really hard hit by the pandemic. And we’ve been helping a lot of tourism operators and also a lot of hotels and motels across Atlantic Canada, for example, because they know the regional development agency, but they didn’t know the regional development agency in B.C.

And the new agency would benefit a range of other industries?

For the tech industry, it’s instrumental because we usually support a lot of the startups and the companies that want to scale up as well. It is also important for manufacturing businesses that want to adopt new digital technologies. We also help businesses export. And so we become the place where they can have access to information and support to try to access new markets. And we’re really a convenor of many other federal departments, from following up with skilled labour needs to immigration to export permits at Global Affairs.

It’s well known that B.C. has a business scale-up problem. Eleven local innovation groups have joined forces to ask the federal government to bring the Ontario-focused Scale-Up Platform to Western Canada. They’re seeking $31 million in federal and provincial funding to make it happen. Do you have any comment on that request?

We’ve just announced the good news that there will be a new B.C. agency. Now my job is to consult on the ground to see what are the needs, and I’ll be doing that in January. So if there are any interests that different entrepreneurs and people from different sectors of the economy want to discuss, I’ll be a text or a Zoom away.

What kind of money will your government commit to the agency?

That’s exactly why I’ll be talking to people in B.C. in January, to see what are their needs. We’re here to make sure that we’re able to protect [jobs] and increase our level of protection if that’s needed, while also playing the role of government of proximity on the ground as businesses are facing real issues in terms of accessing capital and financing.

And at the same time as we will be launching a lot of the recovery measures once we’re post-pandemic, having access to information and to economic development levers is extremely important for B.C.’s economy and for entrepreneurs. So we want to increase our presence as there will be a lot of support coming from the federal government, and it’s just a question of having access to equal opportunities for people in B.C.