A conversation with minister of jobs, trade and technology Bruce Ralston

Minister of jobs, trade and technology? Bruce Ralston explains why the NDP pulled those files together and how he plans to help the tech sector

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Surrey-Whalley MLA outlines his plans to keep B.C. economically competitive

Bruce Ralston oversees a portfolio that reaches into many corners of the provincial economy. As head of the new ministry of jobs, trade and technology, the NDP stalwart is charged with bringing together three files that the previous BC Liberal government allocated to separate cabinet posts. He takes on this task as B.C. continues to outperform other provinces economically, partly thanks to its booming tech sector.

Ralston may be a rookie cabinet minister, but he brings plenty of political and business experience to the job. Now serving his fourth term as MLA for Surrey-Whalley, the Victoria native earned history and law degrees from UBC and an MA in history from the University of Cambridge. He ran his own law firm in Surrey for 25 years, entering politics by serving as a local city councillor from 1988 to 1993.

Ralston, who was first elected to the B.C. legislature in 2005, has been Opposition critic for several portfolios, including finance and international trade. From 2009 until last year, the father of three headed the Select Standing Committee on Public Accounts.

The minister responsible for small business, Ralston chairs the Small Business Roundtable, whose members include entrepreneurs from throughout the province. Outside of his political work, he sat on the board of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union from 1995 to 2006, serving as chair for two years.

Why did your government combine jobs, trade and technology into a single portfolio?

When I talk to people in the business community, I say that I’ve got responsibility for immigration, small business, the trade network and technology. There’s one further thing, which is BC Stats and data generally. Other than housing, it’s the non-resource side of the B.C. economy.

The logic in bringing it all together is to be able to serve people’s interests better than by breaking it up into smaller jurisdictions. The challenge is to create those synergies, like any process of organizational change.

On job creation, what are you doing differently from the previous administration?

After 2011 the previous government focused on the LNG sector; they made a fairly calculated bet. Most of their economic ministries and activity were subordinated to that effort—not entirely, but I did hear concerns from different sectors that they weren’t being listened to because it didn’t fit into the LNG basket.

We’re looking more broadly at the whole of the economy and every region. We are developing a longer-term economic vision. With our partners, we’ve appointed B.C.’s first innovation commissioner, Alan Winter, who will secure funding and champion B.C. tech in Ottawa and abroad, and we are creating an Innovation Commission that will focus specifically on services to technology.

The second thing is the Emerging Economy Task Force, which is in the process of being created. It will endeavour to take a longer view of the economy over the horizon, not driven by the political cycle. British Columbia’s a pretty successful subnational jurisdiction, but in a very competitive world, with a relatively small number of people, how can we be successful in the long run?

How will you tackle the labour shortage in the service industry and other sectors?

We have the Fair Wages Commission that will address the issue of wages. Now, whether it’s purely a wages problem, I don’t think so. Part of the problem in some parts of the province is the cost of housing; it doesn’t enable people to live close to jobs because they can’t afford to rent or buy property. So we’re working on the housing side of it.

On the skills training side, the problem I hear in some sectors is they don’t have people who are trained specifically for the kind of work that they are offering. So it’s also a training challenge.

What’s your stance on temporary foreign workers?

There’s a difference between temporary foreign workers and what I have jurisdiction over, which is the Provincial Nominee Program. In the Provincial Nominee Program, the number last year was 6,000 out of the [immigration] levels that have been set federally, I think 330,000.

So it’s a relatively small program. But in that program, we can address some labour shortage issues in certain sectors where we can bring people who, providing they meet all of the qualifications, if they’re nominated, to the federal authorities after being screened provincially, they will arrive here.

So I recognize that there is a role for immigration. The problem with the temporary foreign worker thing—I wouldn’t rule it out as a very, very last resort, but it’s not my preference. It was never meant to be a program where you would pay temporary foreign workers less and deny jobs to qualified Canadians or permanent residents.

I wouldn’t rule it out entirely, but it would be a low priority for me.

How can we create more high-paying jobs in B.C.? 

I’m not sure the government has a strong interventionist role in driving wages up; I think that’s something that the market has to deal with. So I’m not sure that there’s a strong role for government in telling companies to pay people a lot more. I think the market will have to sort that out and probably will.

There is a shortage of talent in a lot of sectors, and there’s high demand for skilled and talented employees. So to some extent, as companies want to attract those people, they’re going to probably offer more money.

How does your study of history inform your work as a cabinet minister?

One of the things you learn in history is to take a longer view of economies and societies, and to look at trends in economies and societies. So it’s a bit of an antidote to the short-term or narrowly focused perspective, sometimes maybe even myopic, that people get in politics. So I think you can look at other societies and how they faced similar challenges.

For example, I have looked at Finland or Taiwan as relatively compact jurisdictions that have done some pretty impressive things. The state of Kerala in India, in terms of its relative economic performance based on 99-percent literacy, in contrast to some other Indian states.

If you take a broader look at history, what are the ingredients that make for a successful, prosperous and sustainable society? I think that’s one of the things that history can offer in terms of examples.

As the U.S. turns inward, what must B.C. do to ensure that it has a global market?

There was some effort done by the previous government in terms of diversifying on the lumber file, developing the Chinese market. And that work has certainly continued. British Columbia relative to Ontario is less dependent on the American market. The Americans are always going to be a very important market for us, but I think the recent turbulence, certainly at the NAFTA level, means that there’s probably further incentives to look elsewhere, whether it’s to Europe, to CETA—I mean, it’s a market of 525 million people. There’s direct flights to Amsterdam, London, Munich, Paris every day out of YVR. So there’s an opportunity to do business in Europe, where the environmental and labour standards are pretty compatible with what we expect here.

On the other hand, countries like Korea, where Canada signed a bilateral agreement—that’s something that we supported in Opposition. There are opportunities to enter those markets relatively tariff-free. So we have a trade network; we continue to expand it.

But at the same time as the turbulence with the Americans and NAFTA, we’ve also opened a trade office in Seattle and one in San Francisco. [In December I signed] an agreement on behalf of the government with the governor of Oregon and the lieutenant governor of Washington about an innovation network and initiative between our three governments. So there’s huge regional synergies that are possible.

What’s your outlook on the softwood lumber file?

When Premier Horgan was sworn in, he went first to Ottawa and discussed that with the prime minister, then went to Washington and discussed it with the two most senior officials in the United States on trade, Secretary of Commerce Ross and trade representative Lighthizer. He put our case forcefully, and British Columbia, of the Canadian provinces, exports the majority of softwood lumber to the United States, so it’s a very important economic issue for us.

I think there was optimism that there might be a deal before the NAFTA talks got started. That optimism was not vindicated, and now we’re into the stage of litigation. In the past—we have a just case, we’ve won at the trade tribunals ultimately, but it took a long time. So I think ultimately, our cause is just. We will prevail.


Ralston’s favourite British Columbia wine is Steller’s Jay Mountain Jay Brut