Ontario will lean on its technology sector to lead the province to a place of manufacturing strength post-pandemic, says Vic Fedeli, Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade.

“We’ll need the tech sector to guide us through how we can [manufacture] in a way more efficient manner,” said Fedeli Monday, speaking to Communitech News via Zoom from his home office in Corbeil, Ont., a 15-minute drive southeast of North Bay.

In a wide-ranging interview Fedeli, MPP for Nippissing and Chair of Cabinet, praised the rapid contributions that tech companies, particularly those in Waterloo Region, have played in Ontario’s response to the COVID-19 health emergency, singling out in particular Kitchener’s InkSmith, which quickly pivoted to manufacturing face shields once the pandemic hit.

The minister said that more of the same will be needed to respond to the threat posed by the pandemic to the global supply chain – and to support a robust, made-in-Ontario manufacturing capability once the economy has reopened.

“We’ll be looking for that marriage of the No. 2 auto location in North America – that’s Ontario – and the No. 2 I.T. cluster in North America – Ontario – coming together to continue to work together on advanced manufacturing.”

Fedeli reinforced a statement made a month ago by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, that Ontario must protect and enhance its ability to manufacture its own personal protective equipment, as well as other goods, in effect reclaiming an era when Ontario’s factories provided more employment and drove the economy to a greater degree.

“We’re going to grow our domestic supply chain,” Fedeli said. “Never again do we want to be caught not being in a position where we make our own products, and be beholden to other countries.

“That’s why we’re putting $50 million into the Ontario Together Fund, to help companies either retool or buy new equipment and shift to making PPE. We’re going to be needing PPE, not just for the frontline [health workers], but as we begin to open up retail and manufacturing there’s going to be personal protective equipment that’s going to be required.

“[The pandemic] alerted us to the fact, for instance, we don’t make anywhere near the amount of pharmaceuticals that we made in Ontario in the past. It’s not just because it’s a penny or two cheaper to go overseas to make it – it was regulations and red tape. That means we need an absolute focus on reining in regulations and red tape in the safest possible manner.”

Fedeli, without prompting, praised the recent formation and contributions of the Innovation Economy Council, a coalition of technology focused organizations, including Communitech, that aims to help shape a new industrial innovation policy for the country. The group recently published a white paper that described how startups can help drive a post-COVID-19 recovery.

“It’s encouraging to see Communitech and other parts of the innovation ecosystem working together,” said Fedeli. “They’re working to help shape the future of the economy, and I think that needs to continue. It’s all about focusing on made-in-Ontario solutions, which means homegrown commercialization as well.

“I’ve said this before: When it comes to R&D, we’re very very good at ‘R,’ and not always as advanced on the ‘D’ as we should be, so this is why we really want to see commercialization happen.

“The Innovation Economy Council, I think, is the kind of approach we like to hear from all of our sectors, whether it’s in the I.T. cluster or manufacturing or mining and forestry, or retail. We’re always looking for input.

“[It is] informing us of the steps that we should be taking, and we’re very grateful for the focus that [it’s providing].

Fedeli said steps to reopen Ontario’s economy would “depend squarely” on guidance from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, and would take place in stages, adding that “every single decision we make is always about the safety and well-being of our citizens and our workers.”

Fedeli acknowledged the decisions about how and what to reopen were complicated by those being made in the U.S., which not only is Canada’s largest trading partner but has shown a far more aggressive interest in opening up its economy.

“It’s a threading of a needle, all day, 24/7,” Fedeli said.

“You know, I did a virtual trade mission with India last week. So we’re prepared to have staff available all hours of all days.

“We’ll continue to operate 24/7 until our stage three is launched and we have whatever the new normal is going to be.”