Government tables digital strategy in budget

For over a year Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government has been talking about the need to create a digital economic strategy for the nation, with Industry Minister Tony Clement promising to reveal details this spring.

But if as expected the government is defeated, that plan might only see the light of day as an election plank.

In the meantime, the only thing the information technology industry will see is the $720 million over three years the Conservatives included in Tuesday’s federal budget to “set the stage” for a strategy the encourage the use of digital technologies.

The money breaks down like this:

–$80 million in new funding over three years through the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) to help small and medium-sized businesses accelerate their adoption of key information and communications technologies through collaborative projects with colleges;

–$60 million over the next three years to promote increased student enrolment in key disciplines related to the digital economy.

–$100 million per year to the Canada Media Fund for investments in the creation of digital content across multiple platforms.

Industry members gave the plan a cautious thumbs up.

“On the face of it, it looks promising,” said David Ticoll, executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s ICT Skills, (CCICT), a group of companies, industry organizations and universities about to launch a campaign to change the way students and education institutions think about information and communications technology jobs.

The budget funding could go some way to helping reach that goal, Ticoll said.

Traditional ICT jobs are being lost, he explained. New jobs such as smart card engineers, bio- and health-informatics specialists are what companies and governments need now and will increasingly need in the future.

But gaps in the education system “are holding us back terribly,” he said.

The lack of details in the budget documents make it unclear whether the coalition would qualify for funding, he said.

Telecommunications consultant Mark Goldberg, who chairs the advisory board for the Masters in Engineering in Telecom program at the University of Toronto said he is encouraged by the plans to stimulate enrolment in digital fields. “It remains to be seen how you do this without going into high schools,” he added, “since that is where students prepare for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Is $20 million per year [to promote student enrolment in ICT courses] enough to do anything meaningful to stimulate kids to enter these disciplines? I hope this is more than just a plan to do promotional advertising.”

Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), which represents manufactures, said the IRAP money and funds to promote student enrolment.address two key elements of a national digital economy strategy. “While the amounts are not large, they can go a long way to addressing these particular needs. Obviously we would like these measures to be adopted. We also strongly believe that all parties [in Parliament] must support adopting a digital economy strategy for Canada. All parties are no doubt aware of how important this is if we don’t want Canada to fall behind in terms of the most powerful economic and social advances in recent history.”

Peter Carr, director of the online masters in management science program at the University of Waterloo said that “it is impossible to separate this budget from the fact that an election is imminent. Sixty million in digital economy skills is welcome – we especially need it to help keep up as the future Internet or Web 3.0 becomes a reality and we will need more and new skills to establish Canada’s part of this. The question is to what extent does the $60 million in this budget [to encourage students] really indicate a commitment to continuing investment over the term of a future Conservative government? Really, we don’t know and it would be foolish to take this as a positive indication with an election likely this spring.”

Iain Grant, managing director of the Montreal-based SeaBoard Group telecommunications consultancy, was among those who said $60 million over three years for education isn’t much money, but believes it will be welcomed by colleges that qualify for it.

He also said the Canadian Media Fund supplements will also be welcomed by the development community. It’s “a significant amount of money for a fund that invested only $11.5 million as announced on March 1 in interactive projects (experimental) … and a boost to the CMF’s disbursements of $327 million last year.”

Of that figure, he noted, only $10 million was earmarked for digital projects for fiscal 2009-2010.

If there is a federal election the industry is probably hoping all parties offer substantial digital economy strategies to spark vigorous debate.

(With files from Dave Webb and Kathleen Lau)

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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