Ontario’s technology community may have hoped for a robust 2023 budget focused on innovation, but that’s not what it got. As in previous years, the province lightly touched on technology with a couple of exceptions that include strengthening Ontario’s electric vehicle supply chain, and touting clean technology.
Investment in “critical technologies” came down to one lengthy paragraph in the pages-long budget, and added up to a $107 million investment. The government defined critical technologies as 5G/Next Generation Networks, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, robotics, blockchain and cybersecurity.
Even so, budget critics seemed to find more positives in the Ontario budget than not. The Canadian Council of Innovators (CCI) noted the budget arrived at a challenging time for the Canadian technology sector. Dana O’Born, Vice-President Strategy and Advocacy at CCI, cited inflation and tight capital markets, noting both created significant headwinds for high-growth companies.
Ontario Clean Technology Industry Association applauded “recognition of cleantech” but called for more.
Still, O’Born said, “we appreciate that [Finance] Minister [Peter] Bethlenfalvy and the Ontario government has listened to many of our members’ concerns and presented a plan to work closely with Ontario innovators.”
CCI mentioned government efforts to work closer with innovators in the life sciences and advanced manufacturing sectors with the creation of industry-led councils. “We’re pleased to see a focus on improving procurement processes for homegrown firms,” the O’Born added.
“Access to skilled talent is the most important factor propelling the growth of innovative companies in the knowledge economy,” O’Born said.
That acknowledgement echoes CCI’s earlier statement over the importance of gaining tech talent from last year’s budget. At that time, Alanna Sokic, CCI’s then Ontario manager of government affairs, said “We encourage the government to take an ambitious approach to talent going forward. The skilled talent shortage in Ontario’s tech sector is at a crisis point, and urgent action is needed.”
On that front, the province committed to expanding the Futurpreneur program, providing an additional $2 million in this latest budget. The non-profit organization helps businesses led by people aged 18 to 39 by offering mentorship programs and loan capital worth up to $20,000. The budget noted that previous investments resulted in the creation of 1,105 jobs.
The budget also called for $224 million in 2023-24 for a new capital stream of the Skills Development Fund to leverage private-sector expertise and expand training centres to provide more accessible, flexible training opportunities for workers.
As well, the budget said it would boost the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program with an additional $25 million over three years to attract more skilled workers, including in-demand professionals in the skilled trades, to the province.
The latter steps drew kudos from the Toronto Board of Trade. The board opined that the budget addressed the “number one issue keeping businesses up at night – the talent gap – with new funding to support the recently announced doubling of the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program and investment to drive growth in the skilled trades.
“We are pleased to see $224 million to expand bricks and mortar training centres, and $75 million in enhancements to the Skills Development Program, which we would like to see extend to the manufacturing sector,” the Toronto Board of Trade added.
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In terms of critical technologies, the government said that in December 2022 it launched a request for information initiatives on 5G/Next Generation Networks, AI, quantum, robotics, blockchain and cybersecurity. “The submissions will ensure funding to strengthen Ontario’s capacity and leadership in the development and adoption of these six critical technologies,” according to the budget.
The PC Party also said that it was positioning Ontario to build the cars of the future. The budget noted that over the past two and a half years, the province had attracted more than $16 billion in investments by global automakers and suppliers of electric vehicle batteries and battery material.
The government reached as far back as the 2021 budget to point to its investment of $56.4 million to launch the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network. That has resulted in The OVIN, and its predecessor, the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network, creating 2,980 jobs, supporting over 470 SMEs and leveraging over $400 million in private-sector investments.
In this year’s budget, Ontario also committed to launching a clean energy credit (CEC) registry to boost competitiveness and attract jobs.
A CEC registry provides businesses with a tool to meet sustainability goals and demonstrate that their electricity has been sourced from clean resources, such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, bioenergy and nuclear power. Funds generated through the purchases of CECs could be returned to ratepayers, to help lower electricity costs and support future clean energy generation.
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However, while the Ontario Clean Technology Industry Association (OCTIA) said it applauded “the recognition of cleantech as a high-growth sector” in the budget, it believed the province could be doing far more to fully leverage the economic potential of the sector.
OCTIA advocated for a loan guarantee program for cleantech companies. The group also called for the creation of an agency similar to Emission Reductions Alberta, which co-invests in industrial decarbonization projects and enables cleantech pilots.
Finally, the province has made a commitment to centralizing procurement, and said that entrepreneurs and local businesses looking to scale up will have more opportunity to participate in government procurement, increasing demand for made-in-Ontario products. Centralized procurement will result in well‑paying jobs in communities across the province, and leading to lower prices for Ontario consumers, the government claimed.
The government is projecting a deficit of $1.3 billion in 2023–24 and is on track to post a surplus of $0.2 billion in 2024–25, three years earlier than forecasted in the 2022 budget. The government is also projecting a surplus of $4.4 billion in 2025–26.
“While this is a positive update, significant economic and geopolitical uncertainty persists,” the province noted.