Captain Canada logs off

Brian Tobin has always felt at home with the Internet.

In an interview with Technology in Government three years ago, the federal Minister of Industry said he routinely fought with his three children to get access to the family PC. He was an old hand at the Web by then; he had started

surfing years ago by plugging into the BBS at the University of Ottawa.

His decision to exit politics this week marks the abrupt end of an important 16-month period in the digital evolution of this country. It is not yet a success story. Though in some respects Tobin’s efforts have been thwarted by his superiors, his contributions may one day be seen as the necessary prologue to the tale of how Canada committed itself to broadband.

He did not, at first glance, look like the best choice for the job when he was appointed in 1998. This was Captain Canada, the former federal Fisheries Minister who had made national headlines in the so-called Turbot War with Spain in 1995. Unlike John Manley, who had been the Liberal Party’s science and technology critic in opposition before taking on the Ministry of Industry role, Tobin lacked an obvious IT background.

The track record was there, however. In fact, Tobin’s work as Newfoundland’s premier is more impressive than some of his IT achievements on the national scene. He was highly involved, for example, in the establishment of Operation Online, a not-for-profit venture designed to stimulate high-tech development. He followed this up by forming strategic alliances with public-sector counterparts like the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) and private sector partners like Silicon Graphics Canada. Tobin acted locally but thought globally. In his many presentations to influential industry types, he compared Newfoundland to Dublin, which has attracted a number of companies like Xwave and Corel to open branch offices. He called the province a “”fibre optic island”” and backed it up with aggressive initiatives in education. Newfoundland was the first province to have every school connected to the Internet — in 1995.

By the time he took over from Manley, Tobin faced an IT sector experiencing unprecedented growth but considerable infrastructure challenges. He was compellingly articulate, insisting that the provision of high-speed Internet access is a fundamental principle of Canadian industrial policy. He was a vocal part of all the right committees — the National Broadband Task Force and the Canadian E-Business Roundtable — but neither of these efforts are moving quickly enough to ensure our national competitiveness or that the needs of rural Canadians are given the appropriate attention.

Last year Tobin unveiled BusinessGateway.ca, a single-source portal that would provide rural businesses a consolidated information source on taxation, importing and exporting, starting a new business, employment and selling to government. This is a useful tool, but it’s not much of a political legacy.

The most recent federal budget that was released before the end of the year cannot have lived up to Tobin’s expectations. It granted only $110 million for broadband activities, with little indication of future funding and no mention of rural broadband development. It is only to be expected that security spending would steal the spotlight during a war on terrorism, but there should have been other people in the government besides Tobin capable of looking at the long-term picture here.

It will be up to Tobin’s successor, Allan Rock, to keep IT and broadband on the national agenda, but Tobin’s tenure has certainly paved the way. He was the staunch advocate we needed, our Captain Connected. Now we need other legislators to complete the solution.

sschick@plesman.com

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