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Earning a front row seat for the North - Dave Robinson (01/04)

Read the following list of technology clusters supported by the National Research council of Canada. Then explain why Northern Ontario is in trouble. * Ocean Technologies in St.

Read the following list of technology clusters supported by the National Research council of Canada. Then explain why Northern Ontario is in trouble.

* Ocean Technologies in St. John’s;

* Life sciences in Halifax;

* Information technologies in Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John and Sydney;

* Aerospace, biopharmaceuticals;

* Industrial materials in Montreal;

* Aluminium technologies in Saguenay;

* IT, life sciences, photonics in Ottawa;

* Medical devices - Winnipeg;

* Agricultural biotech and nutraceuticals in Saskatoon;

* Nanotechnologies in Edmonton;

* Fuel cells in Vancouver;

* Astronomy in Victoria and Penticton.

NRC’s research institutes have become central hubs for dynamic technology clusters in Montreal, Ottawa and Saskatoon. These cities have seen tremendous growth, and the NRC has helped make it happen.

The NRC Web site describes how it works: “Fuelled by innovation, the cluster becomes a hotbed of investment and technology transfer. Small companies spin off from the original R&D laboratory. Startups find the technical and financial support they need to establish a customer base for innovative products and services. The success of one company attracts another, and another, eventually building a critical mass of skilled people, expertise, capital and entrepreneurial drive. Such an environment helps create local jobs and fuels economic growth.”

So what is wrong with the list? There is no forestry cluster. There is no mining cluster. There is no Northern Ontario cluster. And it is no accident.

The National Research Council is in charge of promoting Canada’s high-tech clusters. In 2000 it committed $110 million to the Atlantic region alone. In 2001 it received an additional $110 million to expand its cluster activities across Canada.

But according to Don Di Salle, a Sudbury boy who happens to be the director general of corporate services for the NRC, Northern Ontario is not in the game. Mining and forestry are the responsibility of Natural Resources Canada, not the NRC.

The problem may get worse before it gets better. For the last 10 years Arthur Carty was president of the NRC. Now, as Paul Martin’s national science advisor, Carty has become the most powerful figure in Canadian science. Will Carty continue to ignore Northern Ontario industries, or will he recommend treating the forestry and mining clusters like other industries?

Joe Comuzzi could tip the balance as Secretary of State for federal economic development initiatives in Northern Ontario. It won’t be easy for him. His agency, FedNor, is the weakest of the four federal regional development agencies. FedNor will be competing with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency under Joe McGuire, the Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec under the new Minister of Industry, Lucienne Robillard, and Western Economic Diversification under Rey Pagtakhan.

As if that wasn’t enough, the key industries in this region are under the Minister of Natural Resources, John Elford. Elford, who was Minister of Fisheries in Newfoundland, will work well with Federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Reagan. But is he likely to promote the mining cluster in Sudbury instead of in his home province?

Comuzzi clearly has a battle ahead of him. He also has very little time. Martin will call an election soon, and after the election the cabinet will be reshuffled and ministries will be restructured.

Comuzzi’s best bet is to play the cluster game to the hilt. He can win support for a mining technology cluster in Sudbury and a technology cluster built around the forestry faculty at Lakehead. The key is to tell FedNor to put all of its energy into getting NRC research centres in both of the North’s major cities.

The rest of us can help. Instead of asking him to do a million small things in the time he has, let’s encourage him to do a few big things that will make a difference. Then, when the ministries are reorganized, he will have earned himself, and us, a front row seat.

Dr. David Robinson, PhD, is an associate professor at Laurentian University. (