‘I have not seen anything anywhere that looks like what’s going on in Ottawa’: Goldy Hyder

goldy hyder
Editor's Note

Editor’s note: This interview with Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, appears in the 2023 Welch LLP Business Growth Survey report. To download the full report, visit https://www.ottawabusinesssurveyreport.ca/

Q: What are the strengths that Canadian businesses can leverage for growth and how do Ottawa businesses fit into that?

The short answer is talent. Our immigration policies are the most supportive policies in this country, certainly by all our major political parties. They’re an asset to us in a world where that’s not always the case. 

We have the capacity to leverage the talent that’s already here, in the Canadians who have been working in the workforce, and help those that are underemployed here, whether they’re women, Indigenous or people with disabilities. 

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Then, we have the capacity to attract more people into the country to help fill needs. Those needs are really right across the board in our economy. We have a major labour shortage. Your airport delays, your housing crisis, your health-care crisis, your retail, your restaurants; these are all affected by the shortage. 

We’ve got to leverage the talent that’s here to the fullest and we’ve got to make sure that new immigrants have more of an economic opportunity in this country. We want to increase the level of economic migrants coming in so that we can support our social policy and our humanitarian policies. That’s something that we think is a tremendous opportunity. 

Here in Ottawa, institutions like Carleton University, University of Ottawa and Algonquin College attract students from around the world. With the diversity and beauty of the city, the opportunities to work in both the public and private sector — plus, better affordability than you’ll find in other major cities — I think Ottawa has a great story to tell, to attract the talent that is available here in the country, but also around the world.

Q: What are some of the weaknesses and barriers limiting the ability of Canadian businesses to grow? How do they show up locally?

The first thing is a significant backlog in our immigration system that is forcing the government to expedite the approval of applications, going back to the beginning of COVID. For two years, we continued to receive applications but didn’t process them. Many workers’ applications are sitting there. Many foreign students, whose visas weren’t processed fast enough, went somewhere else. Other applications have come in and they’re waiting to be processed. 

The department’s trying hard to get that clog unclogged, but it needs to be faster. We need to throw all our resources at it. It’s not only a fundamental issue of people not being able to get in, but also a brand issue about how maybe Canada can’t process these things fast enough. Instead, (migrants) go to Australia, the United Kingdom, the U.S. or Europe, all of whom we compete against for talent. While there will always be a lineup of people wanting to come here, we may not be getting the best and the brightest new people we most want.

Secondly, and somewhat surprisingly, almost eight out of 10 people being hired across the country are being hired by public-sector employers. The private sector is competing with the public sector to make these hires. The public sector, particularly the federal public sector, continues to grow. And so, I think that’s something that we have to be cognizant of, because it is having repercussions in the broader economy.

Q: Ottawa, especially downtown Ottawa, is facing a unique challenge with federal employees still working from home. What do you think the future of the federal presence in Ottawa is going to be?

This is an issue that has caused me great concern. As somebody who travels quite a bit, particularly to other capital cities, I have not seen anything anywhere that looks like what’s going on in Ottawa. The level of return (to work) in many other countries is way higher than what we’re seeing here. 

That extends to those unfortunate realities where places that are heavily reliant on the active engagement of the public sector are going to be irreparably harmed as businesses lose their customer base. 

If we’re not careful, we’re creating an unhealthy divided society with that 60 per cent who have no choice but to go to work every morning. They’re the people who keep us safe, who take care of us when we’re not well, who keep our lights on. They’re relying on those of us who don’t have to go to work every day to be a part of their customer base. There’s going to be some resentment building over time. 

Some say maybe an economic slowdown will take care of that, but nobody wishes for that. Let’s take care of it before something like that happens. I think we have to have an adult conversation about this, from the mayor to the leadership here and in the public sector, to sit down and say, what are we doing here? There’s good intentions, so we’re going to need a mature conversation to help prevent what I think could be a real decline and decay of relationships between people, many of whom are neighbours. 

Q: Looking ahead, what policies can the business community expect from the federal government over the next year? 

All eyes are on Minister (Chrystia) Freeland with her budget to respond to the competitiveness disadvantage for Canada. If we cannot offer investment support for businesses to settle in Canada, to employ in Canada, to pay their taxes in Canada, all of these things will have repercussions. We’re watching carefully at what the opportunity is for Canada to be a magnet for both capital and talent. We need to have a clear response to that. 

Much of that is about the transition to a cleaner, greener economy over a period of decades that will require a heavy investment in innovation and technology as we go forward. Both are strong suits of the Ottawa business community. In particular, I think about the tech sector, the government research institutes here and the post-secondary institutions. All these can play a very key role in turning the ship around. 

We know that Canada’s already home to many multinationals. Take, for example, Finland’s Nokia, which recently chose Ottawa for its latest (research and development) hub. The business community in Ottawa, of all sizes, is very well-positioned to leverage the opportunities that are before us as we build out an economy that is helping us transition to being cleaner and greener.  

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