Getting back to sunny ways: The role of education in Canada’s new agenda

This week brought a buzz to Ottawa that was absent for most of the summer. On Wednesday afternoon, the Governor General delivered the Speech from the Throne, outlining the government’s agenda for the foreseeable future and formally opening the second session of the 43rd Parliament. A few hours later, the Prime Minister delivered a prime-time address to reiterate this plan and speak to the collective public health efforts required in the weeks and months to come. In the best of times, this would be a moment of excitement and new beginnings. But, of course, these are not those times.

We are far from the sunny ways that the government might have hoped for as they lay out an ambitious vision for Canada.  The COVID-19 pandemic deserves primary focus, but much interest was given to what the Prime Minister described as “bold new solutions” in the weeks preceding the resumption of Parliament.  

To that end, there are four broad pillars of the government’s forthcoming agenda: responding to the COVID-19 pandemic; supporting people and businesses; creating a stronger and more resilient Canada; and promoting equity, diversity and inclusion. Each of these pillars are accompanied by a long list of policy ideas, some new, others repurposed. In the context of a weakened economy and the highest unemployment in the G7, this plan for Canada raises important questions about education, training and workforce development. How do we ensure Canada’s workforce has the people, skills and experience required to action these commitments?

The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing second wave means the health and safety of Canadians is priority number one.  The Throne Speech committed to increasing Canada’s testing capacity, continuing the domestic production and distribution of personal protective equipment, and developing a plan for vaccine selection and distribution.  We know that our frontline workforce has been stretched in unprecedented ways throughout the pandemic, necessitating a sustainable talent pipeline.  The continuity of technical and applied programs that supply frontline health occupations – from nurseshealth information managers and supply chain specialists – is critical to Canada’s response.  When lives are on the line, we cannot afford a shortfall of highly qualified talent.  

On supporting people and businesses, the Governor General noted that small businesses are the ‘lifeblood of communities and the backbone of the economy.’  As part of their expanded support to business, the government should also consider enabling these firms to enhance their productivity and innovation potential with the support of local innovation intermediaries.  Local talent, expertise and facilities can assist companies looking to expand their digital offerings or produce more climate-friendly products.  This help is readily available at Canada’s polytechnics and colleges across the country. 

The third pillar of the Throne Speech – creating a stronger and more resilient Canada – included a commitment to the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers.  Supporting Canadians as they build new skills, helping workers receive education and accreditation, and connecting workers to employers is a critical ingredient in economic recovery.  There are thousands of continuing education, professional development and corporate training courses available at Canada’s polytechnics.  Though we don’t need to develop this training from scratch, Canadians will undoubtedly require additional navigation to these offerings.  The Canada Training Benefit could also be enhanced to enable greater access and visibility to support for education and training. 

Finally, the government signalled that climate action will be a cornerstone of their plan to support and create one million jobs across the country.  This has dramatic implications for what was the fourth and final pillar of the government’s forthcoming agenda – promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.  Many workers, including women, people with disabilities and Indigenous Peoples face barriers to accessing education and employment in new and emerging sectors.  Post-secondary programs and industries related to green recovery, like those in construction and engineering, have long faced challenges in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce.  As such, targeted programs that not only look to reduce inequalities but enable a diverse talent pipeline will be extremely important.  Inequalities have been highlighted during the pandemic and we cannot afford to exacerbate them in the recovery. 

While the Throne Speech raises important questions about our ability to action the ambitious goals outlined, the government need look no further than Canada’s polytechnics for ready-made solutions. These institutions have been there throughout the pandemic and stand ready to contribute to the government’s forward vision, and whatever else 2020 throws our way.

About the Author

Matthew Henderson, Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada

Matt contributes to the research, writing and evidence-gathering that support the policy advocacy objectives of the organization. He engages with member working groups to ensure policy research and advocacy is rooted in the latest data about students, programs and graduates. Matt holds a Master’s degree in International Public Policy from the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Wilfrid Laurier University.