Canadian tech community mourns loss of CATA’s John Reid

Passing of pioneering Ottawa-based advocate leaves nation’s tech sector without ‘its voice’

John Reid
John Reid

David Perry knows firsthand just how much energy John Reid poured into pursuing his passions.

Earlier this year, the Ottawa executive search consultant and his wife were visiting Reid and his wife, Carol Beere, at their southern retreat in Sedona, Ariz. No sooner had Perry stepped off the plane than Reid and his pal were heading for the nearby hills.

“He said, ‘We’re going to go up for a short hike to get you in shape.’” Perry says with a grin. “To me, a short hike is, I don’t know, a mile, a mile and a half. It was 4.8 miles. It wasn’t the going up the mountain and around the mountain that was difficult, it was coming down. And that was the warmup.”

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No hill, it seems, was too big for Reid to climb.

As perhaps Ottawa’s most tireless advocate for the tech industry, the affable native of London, Ont., came to personify the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, the organization he led for more than three decades. 

Reid’s unflagging belief in the potential of this country’s entrepreneurs spurred him to champion made-in-Canada technology from upstart firms such as BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion long before it was fashionable, and his unmatched persistence as a lobbyist helped cajole governments into reversing policies he felt would undermine those businesses’ work. He was among the loudest voices urging companies of all kinds to diversity their boards and C-suites and encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields, believing that was a key to Canada’s future economic prosperity.

Reid, 69, died unexpectedly on June 24 while vacationing in Norway with his wife of 30 years. For thousands of people across the country, it was as though one of tech’s brightest lights had been extinguished.

“He just was relentless in terms of doing what he thought was right.”

“You couldn’t find a guy who was more dedicated to intelligent and honest and persistent advocacy on behalf of the tech sector,” says Paul LaBarge, a partner in the Kanata law firm of LaBarge Weinstein and Reid’s friend for more than a quarter of a century. “He just was relentless in terms of doing what he thought was right.”

Canadian tech pioneer

From the time he joined what was then a fledgling industry group in 1987, Reid seized the challenge of expanding CATA’s influence and ran with it. 

Canada’s tech sector was beginning to come into its own, and the University of North Carolina graduate quickly became its biggest booster. He became a crusader for federal tax credit programs that helped nascent Canadian firms compete on the world stage, and was often among the first industry leaders to promote the work of ventures such as Mitel, Corel and RIM.

“He was a big believer ​– not just in his family and in the community, but at what he was doing and the country in terms of tech and pushing forward the Canadian technology agenda,” Perry says. 

“A lot of these people, the first real traction that they ever got for their pieces of technology was through CATA. I swear to God, John has laid his hands on every single piece of software and hardware that’s ever come out of this country. And he knew how to use it.

“He did this because he loved it ​– and took no quarter from anybody.”

Government policy shaker

That was never more apparent than in 2017, when Reid was a leader in the fight against the federal government’s plan to change the rules surrounding income-splitting and capital gains taxes. He told OBJ the country had “fallen off the cliff” in its support for tech firms, and his vocal opposition ultimately played a major role in the feds’ decision to soften their proposals.

“He poked the bear,” says LaBarge. “Because of him, we got changes made. He wasn’t a voice in the wilderness – he was there. He was on the front lines. He would take it the distance and he would always be constructive in trying to find a resolution.”

Startup Canada, an organization devoted to aiding entrepreneurs across the country, worked with Reid to lobby against the tax overhaul.

“A lot of lobbyists will hide behind the issues, but he threw himself right into them. It’s very courageous, what he did.”

“Unlike a lot of folks in advocacy, he fell on his sword,” says Startup Canada co-founder Victoria Lennox. “A lot of lobbyists will hide behind the issues, but he threw himself right into them. It’s very courageous, what he did.”

Noting that CATA is financed entirely through membership fees and private fundraising campaigns, Perry says Reid refused any public money in order to safeguard the organization’s independence.

“When you take government funding, sometimes you can feel a little beholden,” he says. “And he didn’t want to feel beholden to anybody. No matter who the government was, he wanted to push forward what was right for the country.”

Champion of AI, women in tech

Reid was also a pioneer on many fronts.

Under his leadership, CATA was one of the first organizations to establish an awards program to recognize the trailblazing achievements of Canada’s tech firms. In the past few years, he became a vocal advocate for the country’s emerging artificial intelligence sector.

“He reinvented himself all the time,” says Ottawa entrepreneur Eli Fathi, the CEO of artificial intelligence firm MindBridge Analytics and a longtime friend and business associate of Reid. “He was apolitical, which is great. He only looked at the best of Canada in the high-tech community.”

Reid was also a prominent champion of diversity in tech who constantly pushed the industry to become more inclusive in its hiring and recruiting. 

In 2002, CATA established the Sara Kirke Award to honour outstanding women in tech, and earlier this month Reid spearheaded the Sara Kirke Declaration, a set of principles named after the early North American female entrepreneur. The document, which calls on governments and tech leaders to promote women in STEM and remove barriers to funding for women-owned companies, has been signed by dozens of top tech executives from across the country.

“I think he placed the role of women in technology as a key to the success of the technology sector in Canada,” says Lennox, adding Reid was one of her earliest backers when she launched Startup Canada. 

“I’m hoping that one of his many legacies will be that business leaders in technology will continue to advance women in STEM and women’s leadership in technology in Canada. He was just starting some really great work there, and I hope all of us will continue that great work.”

Canada’s tech sector ‘lost its voice’

Despite his lofty status in Canada’s tech hierarchy, Reid’s friends say you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more down-to-earth. With a chuckle, LaBarge recalls the time Reid showed up to a meeting with high government officials wearing Birkenstocks and socks. 

“He was not one to put on airs,” he says. “It wasn’t about how you dressed, it was what you had to say.” 

A devoted father of two ​– daughter Kate and son Andrew ​– who doted on his five grandchildren, Reid loved the outdoors and travelling the world, his friends say. While no one took his job more seriously than Reid, he was also quick with a laugh and a smile, they add.

“That’s just what he was all the time ​– always in a good mood, always positive,” Perry says. “He co-operated with everybody.”

Now it will be up to someone else to pick up the mantel for Canadian tech. Whoever that is will have a very tough act to follow.

“There’s this chasm now,” says Lennox. “What’s next for the tech sector in Canada? It’s lost its voice. He was at the centre of all of it. I hope our city and our country honours the work that he’s done.”

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