Canada’s Data Plan

3 minute read

Canada’s economy is evolving. Some of the country’s traditional industries, like oil and gas, are in various stages of decline and many sectors continue to struggle to recover from the ongoing pandemic. Innovations in data-intensive industries like healthcare, financial services, and artificial intelligence, however, offer hope and economic opportunity. In Alberta alone, the number of tech companies has more than doubled since 2018. It’s no wonder that Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne recently argued that data is “going to be key in the economy of tomorrow.” 

But are Canada’s policy makers and the country’s regulatory environment ready for the data-driven economy?

Baby Steps and Missteps

Since November, the government has been slow-walking debate around Bill C-11, better known as the Digital Charter Implementation Act. In basic terms, the Digital Charter seeks to modernize the federal government’s priorities in relation to privacy and data. And it’s about time. Canada’s current set of data privacy laws — the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) — originally passed more than two decades ago, back in 2000. That’s just two years after Google was founded, four years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook out of his college dorm, and seven years before the first iPhone was unveiled. A lot of things have changed since then, but Canada’s data privacy laws haven’t evolved much. After years of public and industry consultation culminating in Bill C-11, stakeholders have been frustrated by the apparent lack of political will to move the legislation forward.

The obsolescence of the current federal framework and absence of material progress on updating it has put pressure on provinces with their own private sector privacy legislation to update their own laws. Québec is currently pursuing its own data privacy modernization process with Bill 64, which seeks to bring the province’s privacy laws in line with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The legislation is currently in clause-by-clause consideration, where Quebec industry stakeholders are trying to hold out hope for reasoned amendments to an unreasonable original text. Meanwhile, British Columbia’s Special Committee to Review the Personal Information Protection Act has renewed its public consultation, asking stakeholders to focus their input on the provisions in Bill C-11 and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Unfortunately, instead of moving forward with federal legislation that would create some regulatory consistency and certainty in Canada for data-driven companies, the Liberal government is apparently moving forward with their platform commitment to create another new regulator. Last week’s budget proposes that the government spend $17.6 million over five years to establish a new Data Commissioner, tasked with encouraging innovation in the digital marketplace while informing both public and private sector approaches to data-driven issues. 

The government is not wrong that data innovation and privacy issues need to be paid closer attention. But there appears to have been little thought given to how this new office will interact with the existing privacy and information commissioners. Will it really help Canada modernize its data policy, or will it simply add another path to Ottawa’s bureaucratic maze?

During his time as Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains seemed to have an eye on the big picture. Bains frequently touted data as the most valuable asset in today’s economy, and saw the need for an updated regulatory framework that strikes the right balance of strong personal privacy protections while enabling innovation and economic activity. Last fall, it was rumoured that Bains had spent a lot of internal political capital to ensure the introduction of the Digital Charter Implementation Act.

With Bains no longer at the cabinet table, there seems to be a general lack of strategic vision and ambition when it comes to data and the economy. This equally applies to the opposition parties. As the Canadian economy evolves and becomes more and more data-driven, policy makers from all parties are being left further and further behind.

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