Navdeep Bains portrait

Since Navdeep Bains, a 41-year-old FCPA and four-term Liberal MP, took office in 2015, Canada has become a frontrunner in the race to master artificial intelligence, and start-ups have sprouted across the country. (Photo by Guillaume Simoneau)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

The minister of everything

Navdeep Bains, FCPA, already had one of the biggest jobs in Ottawa. Now he has a daunting new task—deciding what to do with Canadians’ data. The country’s economic future may depend on the answer.

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On Nov. 5, 2015, the morning after he was sworn in, Navdeep Bains approached a podium in the halls of Parliament Hill. It took him exactly 23 seconds—barely enough time to recite his unwieldy new title, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development—to announce the return of the mandatory long-form census, which the Conservatives had scrapped in 2010. He lifted a copy of the document and struck a grade-schooler’s show-and-tell pose, flashing a grin for the scrum of photographers surrounding him. The smile wasn’t all show. Bains, a 41-year-old FCPA and four-term Liberal MP, is a self-professed “numbers guy.” And nothing gets a numbers guy going like a census.

Bains wasn’t the only giddy one. When the federal government mailed out the census the following May, a surge of traffic crashed the Statistics Canada website. #Census2016 trended on Twitter, where citizens posted selfies with their surveys and long-form fans griped about receiving the abridged version. The response rate exceeded 98 per cent, making it the most successful census in the country’s history. A sample tweet from one Toronto librarian: “I love this nation of nerds.”

Bains and his ministry are regularly behind Ottawa’s nerdiest endeavours: teaching kids to code, exploring the cosmos, funding scientific research. If there were a Dungeons and Dragons file, he’d be in charge of that, too. It’s an auspicious time to handle this portfolio. Since Bains took office in 2015, Canada has become a frontrunner in the race to master artificial intelligence, and start-ups have sprouted across the country. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver each appear on a Business Insider list of the world’s top 25 high-tech cities, and Toronto has generated more technology jobs than Silicon Valley over the past five years, according to research by the American real estate services firm CBRE. As a politician, Bains may appear to be a mere supporting player in the story, making cheerleading pilgrimages to Silicon Valley and funnelling federal money into “superclusters.” But in Ottawa, there is no one with more sway over whether Canada seizes—or squanders—its current innovation boom.

“People have told me they want to be very ambitious. How can Canada become to data what Switzerland is to financial services?”

He is about to flex that influence more than ever. If the census was an appetizer, Bains is currently cooking up an infinitely geekier main course: the national data strategy, an expansive effort to regulate the heaps of digital information produced by our increasingly high-tech nation. Every time you send an email, book an Uber, order lunch on your phone, ask Alexa a question, swipe into your office, pick a movie on Netflix, file your taxes or google something, a new data point—often, more than one—is born. On its own, that information is virtually useless. But together, those trillions of bits of data are more powerful than a thousand censuses. They reveal how people behave, who they are, how they feel and what they want—the kind of meaty intel that invites digital vultures to circle overhead. That data can help companies design services, AI algorithms perform tasks, governments create policy, advertisers sell products and political operatives sway elections.

Data has mostly stayed off politicians’ radar, understandably so, given 90 per cent of the world’s data was created in the past two years. That has allowed tech goliaths—the Facebooks, Apples and Amazons of the world—to dictate who collects, owns and profits off that data, burying the details in terms and conditions sheets longer than Atlas Shrugged. Then, this past March, news reports revealed that the U.K. political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had used millions of unsuspecting Facebook users’ personal information to meddle in the 2016 American election and Brexit referendum. For the first time, ordinary Canadians began to worry about Big Data going bad: who was watching, what were they recording and how were they using what they found?

Governments now have their own questions. Who decides what gets collected and who’s allowed to collect it? Who owns all that data, who gets to make money from it and who gets to tax it? Few countries have answered these questions. Canada is about to try. In June, Bains announced his ministry would conduct a series of cross-country consultations to inform a digital and data policy that’s expected to be unveiled before the 2019 election.

Navdeep Bains with censusResurrecting the long-form census (CP Images)

Without such a strategy, experts warn Canada will continue to surrender information, and the power that comes with it, to foreign companies. But if the country acts early, it has the opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world and give homegrown companies a first-mover advantage. “In the consultations, people have told me this is Canada’s moment to shine,” says Bains. “They want to be very ambitious. How can Canada become to data what Switzerland is to financial services?” 

On a bright afternoon this past September, Bains stepped into his new office. It was his first day in the west wing of Ottawa’s Confederation Building—renovations on the Centre Block had just begun—but the essentials were there: a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on one wall, family photos on the other, plus a few seats where Bains sits to chat with visitors.

And there are a lot of visitors. Since the Liberals took power in 2015, Bains has been the most lobbied cabinet minister on the Hill. Every day or two, he is courted by a new guest trying to direct his attention—and perhaps a portion of his ministry’s considerable resources—to some facet of the various files he touches: trade, tourism, telecommunications and business development, to name just a few not already mentioned. Among colleagues and in the press, Bains’s sprawling portfolio has earned him the nickname the Minister of Everything.

In the House of Commons, Bains sits several desks down from the Prime Minister, with whom he shares a sprightly energy and dapper sense of style. He treats his turbans like a political mood ring: green for a carbon policy announcement, yellow for Trudeau’s “sunny ways” speech, Grit crimson for just about any occasion. In session, he’s a measured, even-tempered speaker—not a natural orator, but an accidental veteran of the craft.

As a young teenager, Bains registered for a speech competition at his Brampton, Ont., high school at the urging of his grandfather. In the days leading up to the contest, Bains memorized the lecture, a Sikh history lesson delivered in Punjabi. “When I went up to present, I saw the audience and froze,” he says. He nervously muttered a few words, accepted defeat and fled the stage. “I finished in 19th place out of 20. The 20th person didn’t show up.”

Thanks in part to his dismal performance, Bains initially sought out a behind-the-scenes career. He admired his father, an Indian immigrant who built a 20-plus-employee kitchen cabinet manufacturing company, so he decided to study business administration at York University. There, he met his wife, Brahamjot, with whom he now has two daughters, Nanki, 11, and Kirpa, 8. “He was mature beyond his years,” she recalls. Despite his apparent aversion to the limelight, he led the Sikh Students Association, volunteered at homeless shelters and food banks, and ran youth drop-in basketball programs, homework clubs and leadership retreats. “You could definitely tell he stood out as the one who took the leadership roles in all of his activities.”

Navdeep and Brahamjot, also a CPA, both earned their designations after graduating from York. “It would open up more doors for me,” says Bains. After getting his MBA from the University of Windsor, he took an analyst job at Ford. “My goal was to become the CFO or CEO. And I realized that an accounting designation would provide me the ability to understand budgets, business plans, marketing plans, promotions—to be able to succeed.”

Bains’s C-suite ambitions were derailed in 2004. One evening, after they’d watched a movie about JFK, Navdeep told Brahamjot that he was thinking about running for office. Their neighbourhood was about to become part of a new riding, Mississauga—Brampton South, and he was disillusioned with the lack of representation for young people among the Liberal candidates. “The individuals who were running were the usual suspects,” he says. After complaining to his friends, one of them said, “You talk a big game. Why don’t you throw your turban in the ring?”

Bains went on to win both the nomination and the seat, thanks to the support of his sports and volunteer communities and a strong Liberal showing in Ontario. “You always hope to win,” says Brahamjot, “but we were prepared not to.” When Bains delivered his victory speech, he became a high-schooler again: his knees were shaking.

His 2011 election loss was a setback. Things went quiet. At one point Bains asked his wife to call him to make sure his phone wasn’t broken.

At 27, Bains was about three decades younger than the average parliamentarian and felt pigeonholed as a keen but ultimately unseasoned rookie. He was denied his top committee choices—finance, foreign affairs and industry—and instead placed on the ethics committee. But he quickly established himself as a workhorse, logging extra hours to make up for his lack of experience. His idea of a fun lunch hour was talking shop with the parliamentary budget officer. MPs privately tapped Bains’s expertise with numbers, asking him to, for example, guide them through the knottier details of funding government programs. “When you tell people you’re an accountant, they see you in a different light. There’s a level of respect for the profession, and that’s helped me,” Bains said in a Q&A hosted by Luminari, a Toronto-based career network for CPAs. “There are not too many accountants in politics. We need to change that.”

In late 2005, Bains received a call from the PMO. “When you get a call from a senior staffer from the Prime Minister’s Office, you’re not sure what to make of it,” says Bains. He thought, “Am I in trouble?” Rather, Paul Martin wanted Bains to be his parliamentary secretary—that is, a close aide and apprentice. “He was very bright, he had a great personality and there was always a smile on his face,” says Martin. “He was a very popular member of Parliament because of his insight, his judgment and the fact that he was able to work well with parliamentarians on both sides of the floor...It’s no surprise to me that he is one of the most important cabinet ministers today.” Before long, some wondered whether Bains had ambitions to follow in Martin’s footsteps. In 2007, when Bains was trade critic in Stéphane Dion’s opposition caucus, a senior Liberal staffer told the Toronto Star that he had the potential to be “the first Canadian prime minister in a turban.” 

The 2011 election dashed that dream. Bains lost his seat when the Conservatives took office and Jack Layton’s Orange Wave relegated the Liberals to third-party status. For a couple of days, people called to say, “I’m sorry you lost,” Brahamjot recalls. “And then there was just silence.” At one point, Bains asked her to call him just to make sure his phone wasn’t broken.  

After leaving Ottawa, Bains became a visiting professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Business Management, where he developed a business and public policy lecture series that featured regular cameos from his Hill connections, including the former PM. Martin says it was around this time Bains began to develop an expertise on innovation and the digital economy. “Nav and Ryerson, at that point, were ahead of the debate,” he says. 

In 2013, Bains became the national co-chair for organization on Trudeau’s leadership campaign and, two years later, won a seat in another new riding, Mississauga—Malton. (He will run as the incumbent there next year; in June, he became the Liberal’s first nominated candidate for the 2019 election.) “When I was first appointed to cabinet, I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got name recognition. I’ve been in the media. People will recognize me,’ ” Bains said in the Luminari Q&A. “But for the first few weeks, many people took pictures of me thinking I was the minister of defence, [Harjit Sajjan].” Or, later, the leader of the NDP; in 2017, Bains appeared in a Vice article titled, “All the People Who Are Not Jagmeet Singh.” The pair generated more clickbait fodder earlier this year, when they faced off in a dance battle at a food bank fundraiser. (Spoiler: Bains takes it.)

Navdeep Bains dancingHis dance-off with Jagmeet Singh (colfilms.com)

Off the dance floor, Bains’s highest-profile moment came in 2017, when the Liberals unveiled their so-called innovation budget. It earmarked $950 million for a “superclusters” initiative, a project intended to generate tens of thousands of jobs by turning five regions into commercial hubs for fields such as AI and manufacturing. It was greeted with suspicion, not least because no one knew what a supercluster was. Critics accused the federal government of playing favourites: every major province of the country got a cluster except for Alberta. The Globe and Mail likened the program to a “government-engineered Ponzi scheme.” If Canada wanted five Silicon Valleys of its own, it would need actual innovation, not governments to fabricate tech la-la lands by giving out grants. In Maclean’s, columnist Paul Wells revealed it was impossible to tell online who might actually lead these clusters, and Ottawa business consultant Mischa Kaplan wrote, “Perhaps someone should tell Mr. Bains that Silicon Valley somehow miraculously developed in the most unexciting of ways: a group of highly innovative and productive companies created products that consumers wanted...Washington was by no means the key development orchestrator.”

Yet the superclusters had their fans. Even Wells concluded his cynical column by admitting “it’s probably a good thing in a lot of ways.” And other Bains-led projects and budget pledges have been more warmly received: roughly $2.7 billion for clean tech, AI and venture capital, a fast-track visa for Canada-bound tech workers in the wake of Trump’s travel ban, a revamped procurement program that would make it easier for start-ups to work with government, a strategy to protect Canadian companies’ intellectual property, efforts to introduce 5G wireless networks, expanded internet access in Indigenous communities. Of course, it’s easy to love the guy handing out bags of money. But this smattering of programs and promises—many of them spurred by recommendations from start-up founders and industry advocates—endeared Bains to the tech community. It also cemented his influence. With their budget, Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau had gone all-in on innovation—and, by extension, on Navdeep Bains.

Giving computers to Syrian refugees generates viral headlines. Withholding science funding incites marches on Parliament Hill. Announcing a national data strategy mostly inspires a collective “huh?”

For the uninitiated, experts often compare data to oil. Oil powered the industrial economy, and data will power the digital economy. We extract oil from the earth, while we mine data from just about everything on it: heartbeats, online purchases, pressure gauges. Whereas oil fuels cars, data feeds the AI algorithms that tell an autonomous vehicle where to go, how to get there and how not to hit anything along the way. “To the human mind, Big Data is meaningless noise; to computers, it is an information mine,” writes Dan Ciuriak, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Waterloo, Ont.-based think tank. “It is precisely the ability of computers to extract systematic information out of this noise that underpins the value proposition of Big Data and the algorithms built on it.”  

Just how valuable is it? According to research by the blockchain-based data marketplace Datum, a single Twitter user’s data might make the company just US$16.15 per year, based on the company’s average revenue per user. But if that person uses 20 different social networks and online services (e.g., Facebook, WordPress, SoundCloud), they can generate upwards of US$2,000 per year for the companies collecting and selling data, despite the fact that such data often costs just pennies to produce and purchase. An entire industry of data brokerages exists solely to sell and buy this data; it’s often estimated to be worth more than US$200 billion.

Navdeep Bains with PM Justin TrudeauWith Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (CP Images)

Canada wouldn’t let an American company stroll into the Alberta oil sands, suck up bitumen and sell it to Canadians without paying royalties or taxes along the way. With data, however, that’s precisely what’s happened. Because of obsolete policies, foreign power players can soak up Canadians’ data and, for the most part, make off with the windfall. “Private companies can effectively work like government if they can control the information that gets produced,” says Blayne Haggart, a data governance critic and associate professor of political science at Brock University. “There are going to be rules. The question is: who’s going to set those rules? If left to the private sector, they’ve got certain motivations, like profit, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to make money.” 

Haggart and other critics instead want the government to step in. They may want the data strategy to achieve different things: it could stop Canada from bleeding billions by giving citizens greater control over who has access to their data and how they use it; it could tax companies, like data brokerages and social networks, that profit off data; it could position Canadian companies, rather than American interlopers, to reap those profits instead. But they virtually all agree Ottawa needs to act. “This is something that we should have discussed 15 years ago,” says Haggart. “Democratic accountability is pretty much the only direct way that you and I as citizens have to control how this stuff gets used.”

Pressure has mounted in the past year. Last December, the National Research Council presented the case for a national data strategy to senior civil servants, warning that Canada could become a “nation of data cows.” In March, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. Then, in May, former Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie, another CPA, called the data strategy “the most important public policy issue of our time” and pressed MPs to regulate or risk falling victim to “surveillance capitalism.”

The following month, Bains announced the digital and data consultations, a months-long series of 28 roundtables in 16 cities comprising academics, CEOs, scientists, think tanks, Indigenous leaders and others. “We’re in a global innovation race,” says Bains. “We really need to step up our game.” In addition to questions of data governance, the consultations will address fundamental elements of preparing Canadians for the future economy, such as providing rural internet access and ensuring Canadians have the skills they’ll need for an estimated 2.4 million new jobs over the next four years, many of them requiring digital proficiency. Findings from the consultations will be presented this fall, and observers expect a formal policy to follow in 2019, though the ministry has not committed to a timeline. “We’ll be rolling it out,” says Bains. “We want to first take the feedback from the consultations, then listen to and analyze the information that we get. Based on that, we’ll determine what that path looks like going forward.” 

Privacy. Skills development. How data gets collected, used and taxed. It’s all on the table. “We are in a global innovation race,” says Bains.

Bains says the first step should be to earn Canadians’ trust, to assure them that government won’t misuse their data as private companies have. “If people don’t have trust and feel their privacy is protected, and feel that issues of consent aren’t dealt with properly, then we can’t really have economic opportunities or leverage the new jobs being created.” The strategy will also have to find a Goldilocks solution between too much regulation, which would protect Canada’s data but perhaps stifle innovation, and too little, which could have the opposite effect. Bains points to the U.K., which launched a digital charter in January. “It’s not about being too prescriptive,” he says. “It’s about a principles-based approach when it comes to protecting people and their data. I think there is a lot of merit to that approach.”

Data may seem like the realm of start-ups and tech CEOs, but Bains emphasizes the strategy will apply to primary industries, too. John Deere, for example, uses sensors in its tractors to measure soil and crop conditions, then sells that data back to farmers. “When people think of innovation, they think of the latest smartphone,” says Bains. “But there’s so much innovation happening in agriculture, in forestry, in mining. These companies understand it’s innovate or die. The question is, do they have the resources? Do they understand how to leverage data in a meaningful way?”

The good news is that Canada’s primary industries are already outfitted with more than $50 billion in so-called simple sensors, affixed to gauges and conveyor belts across the country. They don’t currently talk to one another, but a data strategy could include plans to “wake them up”—that is, upgrade the sensors to constantly feed readings to a central database. Viewed together by an AI application, the data might reveal ways to cut costs, improve performance and reduce emissions. In the U.K., for instance, the AI lab DeepMind is in discussions with the National Grid to use data to optimize usage and slash energy bills.

Haggart argues the consultations have so far prioritized job creation and individual data privacy over larger societal questions, such as what data gets collected, by whom and how it’s used. Should data be owned by individuals, private companies or the public? And who should decide? “The government is to be commended for the fact that they’re actually dealing with these issues,” says Haggart. “They’re moving in the right direction, but they need to go further. It has to be bigger than a summer consultation.”

The data strategy will face one of its first and fiercest trials in Quayside, a dreary L-shaped slice of Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Today, it’s populated by industrial offices, derelict soy silos and rows of parked cars. Over the next several years, Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company based in New York, intends to transform it into a “neighbourhood built from the internet up.” Early plans propose a mixed-use community of sleek mid-rise condos, rental towers, street-level shops and oodles of public space. Self-driving cars will zip through the streets, tiny robots will ferry trash underground, and hexagonal tiles—equipped with LEDs and temperature controls to melt snow and ice—will shapeshift from road to bike lane to sidewalk as needed. Every inch of the smart city will produce data: building occupancies, trash levels, foot, bike and vehicle traffic numbers. In its initial bid for the land, the company wrote, “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world.”

In the firm’s telling, Quayside will become a sci-fi utopia. To critics, it’s an Orwellian nightmare. Until recently, Sidewalk had released few details about what data it would collect, how it would be used and who would own it. Inside Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk’s tri-government partner, these and related concerns prompted the resignations of CEO Will Fleissig; board member Julie Di Lorenzo, a developer; and digital strategy advisors John Ruffolo, a venture capitalist, and Saadia Muzaffar, an entrepreneur.

Navdeep Bains portrait in his officeBains in his office (Guillaume Simoneau)

In October, as criticism mounted, Sidewalk presented its plans: an independent Civic Data Trust would control Quayside’s data, the majority of data would be public and freely available, and monetizing data would not be a “key part” of its business model. Detractors were unmoved. Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, wrote, “Sidewalk Labs continues to act like it’s the government”—and that Waterfront Toronto had failed to rein them in. “This is Waterfront Toronto’s mess to answer for.”

Bains says he is confident Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel will ensure the project is carried out appropriately. “Waterfront Toronto manages this project on behalf of all orders of government and takes seriously the concerns surrounding data and privacy,” he says. “We will continue to work closely with Waterfront to ensure this innovative redevelopment takes place in an ethical and accountable fashion.”

Bains has so far had the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach to the data strategy. But a showdown is looming—Sidewalk Labs will deliver its final proposal to Waterfront Toronto in early 2019—and Canada will soon need him to show some fangs. “Are we okay with Google setting the rules?” asks Haggart. “It’s got to be somebody, and personally, I’d rather it be someone who’s accountable to me—and to 35 million other Canadians.”