Ontario’s Latest Budget Offers Support for Growing Tech Sector

On Thursday, the Government of Ontario tabled their first balanced budget since the beginning of the global financial crisis in 2008.

Finance Minister Charles D’Souza’s budget outlined numerous new spending objectives including a number of investments in the Ontario tech eco-system. With the Ontario knowledge-based economy growing at an exponential rate, the 2017 provincial budget unpacks some support that will help assist in the development of the Ontario tech sector.

No Increased Transit Along Toronto-Waterloo Corridor…Yet

As talent across the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor continues to spread throughout the region, the Province has still yet to commit to any public transit improvements to ease the flow of traffic between the two growing tech hubs. With massive growth in both the Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo tech ecosystems, there have long been calls to ease the flow of traffic between both hubs in order to maximize talent retention in Southwestern Ontario.

Residents of both areas will have to wait longer for improvements to the GO rail services along the Kitchener corridor. Despite an extremely inconvenient schedule connecting the two cities, Budget 2017 only states that “planning and technical analyses are underway” to facilitate all day Go service along the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor, with some sources claiming such services won’t be available for at least another decade. Despite a recent $752 million investment from the Government of Canada, the Ontario Government did not commit any new funds to this project in Budget 2017, meaning residents should not be prepared to hold their breath that the service will be available anytime soon.

Canadian tech wunderkind Shopify has offices in three Ontario cities including their newest build in Waterloo.
Canadian tech wunderkind Shopify holds offices in three Ontario cities including this Waterloo location.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll also find that numerous highway infrastructure projects are slated to begin along the corridor starting in 2018, with some finishing as late as 2022. Construction in the area will only further contribute to congestion and increased drive times between the two hubs as more and more residents pour out of the GTA into Kitchener-Waterloo in search of affordable housing, with most continuing to commute to western parts of the GTA and Toronto for work.

However, the possible high-speed rail alternative slated for the Toronto-Kitchener-London-Windsor corridor shows very modest signs of progress as the Province works to advance a comprehensive environmental assessment and support additional design and planning work along the corridor. Further, the Government announced days prior to the budget that it will be tabling a proposal on high-speed rail sometime in May. Coupled with the fact that Budget 2017 also states that the Government is considering the development of a governing body that would “provide oversight on the ambitious work required to design and implement high-speed rail”, residents in Southwestern Ontario will have to wait and see how and if high speed rail will proceed in order to connect Ontario’s two major tech hubs.

Increased Support for the Business Growth Initiative

Budget 2017 announced $250 million in additional funding for the Business Growth Initiative (BGI). The BGI was announced in Budget 2016 and is now investing $650 million over five years with a mandate to support Ontario’s knowledge-based economy by helping innovators and entrepreneurs “compete through innovation”.

Included in this announcement is $75 million to support an Advanced Research Computing and Big Data Strategy designed to support operating costs for advanced computing across Ontario. While Big Data professionals may be tempted to rejoice at this offering, it should be noted that this funding will be spread out over five years, as well as across all tech hubs and numerous public institutions across the province. For example, out of the $75 million, the funding will also support new hardware investments specifically allocated for the University of Toronto (UofT) and the University of Waterloo (UW), as well as new research projects. After dividing the funding over five years and deducting the amounts already dedicated to specific projects and institutions, it is not immediately clear how much funding will be available to other projects not specified.

Another example is support for the newly announced Vector Institute for artificial intelligence (AI), which will receive $50 million from the Province in addition to an unidentified amount of support from the Government of Canada, as well as roughly $80 million from private-sector companies. Further, $20 million over five years ($4 million per year) will be spent specifically to help develop research, training and support academics in the field of quantum science.

Upcoming Support for FinTech and the Sharing Economy

The Province also offered a few placeholders for upcoming support for both a FinTech Strategy and a Sharing Economy Strategy, without providing any funding information for either. However, the government uses Budget 2017 to acknowledge the growing importance that both subsets of the Ontario tech industry play in the overall provincial economy. Such posturing is a positive sign for both areas of the tech industry regarding possible upcoming Government support. The Province promises help is on the way for both aspects of the tech industry with announcements to come “soon” that will help each area develop as leaders on the global stage, while also protecting consumers back in Ontario. However, with no details provided in the budget, one can assume the Government will be announcing these initiatives at a later date to court support from the tech sector as we inch closer to the provincial election in 2018.

Budget 2017 also places emphasis on partnering with businesses to stimulate job creation through the Jobs and Prosperity Fund, as well as announces a “Career Kick-Start” Strategy which will be used to create co-op opportunities for students and graduates, both of which could be of direct benefit to the tech sector. Overall, Budget 2017 shows promise and offers signs of increased support for the growing tech sector in Ontario. With some disappointments and hurdles to overcome in order to advance the development of the Ontario tech sector, the Government of Ontario has used Budget 2017 to build on previously announced support for the industry and shows signs of promise when it comes to future support.

Madison Cox is a former strategic communications advisor to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and is currently the Vice President of Durrell Communications, a tech PR agency based in Kitchener-Waterloo.