Navdeep Bains, minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, speaks to Canadian Manufacturing
by Alanna Fairey, Associate Editor
The minister discussed “Canada’s Plan to Mobilize Industry to fight COVID-19"
TORONTO — On March 20, the federal government announced “Canada’s Plan to Mobilize Industry to fight COVID-19“, a program designed to deploy resources to domestic manufacturers so they can scale up production or re-tool their manufacturing lines to develop products that will help in the fight against COVID-19.
Navdeep Bains, minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, talked about the initiative in more detail with Canadian Manufacturing.
Watch the full interview: Q&A: Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and industry
**This interview has been edited and condensed**
Canadian Manufacturing: What is “Canada’s Plan to Mobilize Industry to fight COVID-19”?
Navdeep Bains: This is an unprecedented crisis, and we recognize that to support our frontline health care workers, we needed personal protective equipment. Our objective from day one was to protect Canadians, and to flatten the curve. In order to do that, we needed to make sure that we also supported our local health authorities. But the reality was that a lot of the personal protective equipment relied on global supply chains from other jurisdictions.
We had a call to action in March, as this crisis was starting to really pick up here in Canada, and asked manufacturers to come forward with solutions and ideas for what they can do to retool or scale up. It’s been remarkable, as we’ve seen over 6,500 different Canadian entrepreneurs, scientists and researchers come forward with different types of ideas, and over 700 companies have retooled their manufacturing operations. That’s been incredible because that’s allowed us to build the domestic capacity for gowns, for ventilators, for masks, etc., which has been so critical to our frontline health care workers.
CM: What results have been achieved thus far in terms of the production of PPE, sanitizer, ventilators and other medical and disease control equipment?
NB: First of all, I want to also just say thank you. Thank you to Canadian manufacturers who have recognized this as an opportunity for us to come together as Team Canada to support fellow Canadians to save lives.
We’ve been able to do some remarkable things. Take ventilators, for example. This was a major issue. We saw in other jurisdictions where countries had to decide who would live and who would die because of the limited supply of ventilators, and we were able to engage Canadian companies like Starfish, for example, or CAE, or Art McDonald’s initiative to help produce 40,000 ventilators in Canada. Thornhill Medical is another great example of that.
We’ve been able to not only meet the demands of Canadians, but also be in a position to help other jurisdictions and I think that’s a point of pride.
CM: How is your ministry providing support to manufacturers interested in the program?
NB: We work very closely with Procurement Canada. Minister Anita Anand [Public Services and Procurement] and I work hand in hand. We recognize that it’s our responsibility to identify the companies but to make sure there’s a seamless process for purchase orders so that companies can make that capital investment and can scale up.
We’ve seen remarkable success stories, take, for example, General Motors, and its Oshawa plant. We know some of the challenges they’ve had there recently, but they were able to quickly retool and now commit to making 10 million masks, which has been a remarkable story.
The challenge we were having was how do we source local material that meets Health Canada specifications? And we were able to, through Canadian innovation and Canadian ideas, use the nylon from airbags as the raw material for medical grade gowns. That’s been another remarkable story as well.
If you’re a Canadian company, if you reach out to our office, we quickly work with you and find out if there’s an opportunity to get a purchase order and connect you with Procurement Canada.
CM: What challenges has your ministry and the government as a whole had to overcome to marshal Canada’s manufacturing capacity for this mission?
NB: Truth be told, we’re not designed to move this quickly. Our procurement process, some of the policies will take months, if not years to implement, and we’ve had to deal in weeks. That’s a testament to our public servants and I want to thank them, but it has been a bit of a challenge, particularly in procurement where we’ve had a culture that is a bit risk-averse. We’ve been able to change that quite a bit.
One of the programs that I’m very proud of is Innovative Solutions Canada, and this is an across government procurement strategy using our purchasing power to identify unique challenges. We’ve done a lot of challenges out there with Canadian manufacturing companies, with Canadian scientists and researchers. And we’ve helped them with their proof of concept and their prototypes as well.
It’s been remarkable to see some of the exciting ideas that are emerging, for example, saliva-based samples to do point of care test kits, which is going to be critical for the reopening of our economy. I think that’s a remarkable success story as well.
But more directly around your question, it’s really been changing the culture within government, particularly around procurement to be more nimble and more flexible and agile to meet the needs of these Canadian manufacturers.
CM: What is the status of this program at the end of June? Are you still seeing new manufacturers getting involved, are those already involved looking for new ways to help?
NB: We’ve made significant purchase orders for personal protective equipment with many Canadian manufacturers, but they also are working with provinces and municipalities and some of them even directly with hospitals. But as we’re reopening the economy, they’re [manufacturers] working with businesses as well to make sure that they have the essential personal protective equipment to create a safe work environment.
We’re seeing a lot of businesses pivot from government to the private sector [as customers] now to look at more opportunities for them to expand their product offerings and to be able to generate more revenue. That’s really exciting because, again, it creates jobs and opportunities. But ultimately, it saves lives.
CM: Have any of the companies involved in the program provided any suggestions or feedback on how the program is going and what changes should be made, if any?
NB: We try to think through what are some of the longer-term implications of this retooling effort. When we talk about Made-in-Canada, we talk about using our industrial base, our manufacturing base. What does this mean for the economic recovery in the medium and long term? Are we rethinking our supply chains for example?
They [manufacturers] want to know what that strategy looks like so they can plan accordingly. They can devise business plans with five-year time horizons and make capital investments. This is part of the process that we’re engaged with. Of course, we’re still in the crisis, but as we talk about the restart and the economic recovery, we need to address what kind of investments we need to make in Canadian manufacturing, so that we’re a resilient economy, a self-sufficient economy.
CM: What are the expectations for this program as the COVID-19 situation develops? What about the post-COVID-19 world?
NB: I think this is a great opportunity for us as a government to re-evaluate our industrial policy and procurement strategies. We’re working to determine what those next steps would be for manufacturing, and what the opportunities are to support Canadian companies.
CM: Do you have any final thoughts or comments?
NB: My message is very clear – I’m very proud of the way Canadians have come together to support one another. We’re still in this crisis; we’ve still got to work together as we navigate through this crisis. I’m optimistic we will come out stronger, we will be better off, we will learn from these experiences and create more opportunities for Canadians, particularly in manufacturing. I’m really optimistic and excited about the future.