5 Questions: Ravi Kahlon, B.C. minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation

Ravi Kahlon, B.C.'s new minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, looks beyond the pandemic.

Credit: Don Craig/Province of B.C.

A few months into his new cabinet role, the Delta North MLA and former Olympic athlete looks beyond the pandemic

For the complete interview, which took place in late January, check out The BCBusiness Podcast.

We’re still in the midst of a major crisis. Is this the time to be talking about recovery?

It’s tricky, because whenever I raise the question of economic recovery in a public way, the response is overwhelming, like, Why are you talking about this right now? We’re still in the pandemic. I understand that, and I appreciate that. So we are very much in a phase that is about supporting our businesses the best we can to maintain operations during an unprecedented time.

But that being said, I think it’s responsible for us as a government, and certainly for business leaders, to start thinking about what does the transitioning to opening up look like? What does the future look like? Folks say that we need to go back to normal, and I say that we need to go find what the new normal is. And so those conversations need to start happening; they’ve already started to happen. But in a public sense, we still can’t talk about recovery because we still need to focus on keeping people safe and keeping businesses afloat.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates that more than 200,000 companies could shut down as a result of COVID-19. How do you plan to help employees of the many B.C. businesses that might join that group?

 The Canadian number needs to be separated from the B.C. number. I’ve spoken to the CFIB, and they will acknowledge that B.C. is an outlier. We are the only province that didn’t shut down our construction industry; we’re the only province that didn’t shut down our manufacturing industry….And so our model and how we’ve handled this, that health is the foundation of our economic recovery, people’s cooperation has been the key.

We’ve probably had a net loss of about 8,000 businesses, and that number is hard for us to swallow. But I’m very optimistic about late quarter two and quarter three and four of this year. I think we’re going to see a strong bounce-back.

How are you preparing for what looks like another unpredictable year in B.C.?

It’s a real challenge, and month to month, we don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’ve been preparing by being flexible, by listening, by adjusting as we go. Many of our programs have started one way and a few months later become different. That’s not normal for government, but we’ve been adjusting to the times, and we’ve been adjusting to the challenges that communities and people and businesses are facing.

And we’ve been able to show how innovative government can be….When you look at reforms in health care, the changes that we thought were going to be 10 years out happened in 10 months. When we look at the court system, how they adjusted to go online so our justice system could continue to operate, it’s phenomenal. And so I think that’s going to be the legacy of COVID, is that not only government but private sector will be finding innovative ways to do what we thought we had been doing well before.

What kind of provincial economy do you think will emerge post-COVID?

B.C. has a phenomenal story to tell, and that is my goal as the minister responsible for economic recovery and trade. We have a low-carbon advantage with our products here in B.C. The costs around wanting to ensure we have a stable economy have already been worked into our products. When we look into what’s happening in the U.S. with the change in government, when they make a move, the world moves with them. There’s going to be a move toward sustainability, and we’re already there. I’m looking forward to working with our resource sector, with our tech and innovation sectors, to not only tell the story of where we are but ensure that we maintain that lead and that competitive advantage.

Where does innovation fit into the big picture?

It’s going to be central. We’ve got to think differently about how we’ve been doing things. We have huge opportunities. I look at life sciences and how fast they’re growing here in B.C. I look at Harbour Air and what they’re doing with their electric planes, and we’re supporting them. We’re leading the world in that conversation. I look at mass timber and companies that are looking at how do we build sustainably but at the same time build faster, and use the latest technology in how we model our buildings. And agritech—we have some of the leaders in the world when it comes to research, here in the Lower Mainland. We’ve already got amazing stories, and that’s something I’m going to help share.

Previously: Parliamentary secretary for forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development; two-time Olympian in field hockey

Hobby: Peloton. Bought it during COVID and have become obsessed

Last book I read: The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato

Favourite TV show: The Office (U.S.)

Most memorable concert: The Roots at the Commodore

Pet peeve: The yolks from over-easy eggs stuck on a plate, from my time washing dishes at my parents’ restaurant