George Ross is Ontario’s Deputy Minister, Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, and the past president of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. He spoke with Vic Pakalnis, CGE editorial advisory board member.
It seems that mining as a sector doesn’t have as high a priority for public services in Canada as sectors like the biomedical, auto sector or others. Why should senior public servants care about mining?
Resource development and the ability to translate our resource endowment into wealth and prosperity has been the historic economic underpinning of this country. From my vantage point, as deputy minister of MNDM in Ontario, I can see it’s going to increase in importance across Canada, but I am not sure the resource extraction or mining-related policy field is one that’s well understood across the country. It’s a very, very interesting field. The mining industry impacts many policy areas and drives a lot of policy thinking. The sector needs to consider responsibilities related to environmental protection, and the remarkable impacts on northern development, technology and innovation, social policy and Aboriginal people. But it’s our job at MNDM to make sure policymakers and policy thinkers in all those associated fields understand the economic importance of mining.
In Ontario mining is a major generator of wealth. The value of mineral development was over $9 billion in 2012. There are more than 500 mining supply and services businesses in Northern Ontario worth more than $5 billion annually. Direct employment in the mining sector is over 15,000. Mining provides substantive benefits to rural and remote regions. It’s the economic pillar of many communities in Ontario such as Red Lake, Timmins, Sudbury – even Toronto – because of the financial services sector associated with mining. The potential for growth is phenomenal including developments such as the Ring of Fire. So, cutting across so many different policy fields, it’s obvious that mining is an important driver for social and economic development in Canada. We will keep telling that story. It’s vital for our country.
What would you recommend to other senior public service ADMs and deputies to get to know this sector?
For me, learning as a public sector executive is hands-on. I need to go and visit the communities built around mines, talk with mineral exploration companies and see mineral development and mining operations firsthand. I’ve spent time underground to understand the work environment and the safety issues. I’ve learned from people working in the innovation area, the supply and services sector, and in research labs at institutions like Laurentian University. I’ve visited First Nations communities directly impacted by mining operations to build relationships and to better understand what those communities want to achieve through participation in mining opportunities. So, I think it’s about understanding the business from the grassroots up.
The mining sector is currently in a severe downturn due to worldwide commodity prices and recovering markets. Mining cycles of peaks and valleys are normal. Yet the public policy challenge for dealing with the lack of jobs for new grads, investment in research and innovation, access to capital for junior mining companies, and layoffs seems to be one of those ongoing wicked issues. Is there hope for mitigating some of these for the future?
The nature of the mining industry is commodity cycles; they have impacted mineral development interests in this country for well over a century. For that reason, policymakers and industry have become accustomed to dealing with the market fluctuations. Largely, it’s not within a government’s capacity to affect those cycles because they relate to global economic conditions. But, having said that, there is a very important role for government to ensure there is a stable regulatory and investment environment so, when commodity prices recover, our jurisdiction continues to be recognized as a destination for investment. Ultimately, stable and predictable regulatory policy environments and investment-friendly climates that include competitive taxation are absolutely vital to the long-term. And policymakers can’t waver from important foundational investments in education, our labour force and scientific innovation.
Should Canada as a whole have a comprehensive national mining development strategy? What would the components of that be? How would we be able to get more value out of our resources as a nation?
In our constitutional structure, resource management is an area of provincial jurisdiction. Provinces and territories have done an extremely good job in setting a policy and investment structure that promotes mineral development. However, the federal government does have a role in regulatory approval for major projects, and remains responsible for leading national economic policy along with encouraging development with federal investments. There are certainly areas of national interest at our joint federal, provincial, and territorial table. Across Canada issues relating to the national and global labour force and labour mobility are under the lens. The Energy and Mines ministers are actively working to ensure Canada has skilled labour to drive resource development. Particularly in Canada’s north, it’s clear how important that labour force is. It’s critical that we have the skills coming out of our educational institutions to feed the industry’s need for labour.
In the area of innovation technology, research and development is critical. Much of the funding ability of this country to drive innovation comes through national granting councils. Having a focus on mining and mineral development in our national research and innovation strategy is going to be very important to keep our leading advantage in this field. Today, Canada is known globally as a leader when it comes to mining and mining finance. There is no reason that Canada shouldn’t also be seen increasingly as a leader in innovation, productivity and safety. So, there is an important place for national strategy in the mining sector.
You have finished your term as president of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. What do you see as issues confronting Canada’s public services?
In my time as president I’ve been absolutely struck by the diversity and reach of public services across this country and how they touch the lives of so many Canadians each day. Public servants are filled with ingenuity, innovation and perseverance. Their ability to drive forward and get results is phenomenal. It’s fair to say that these are challenging times for the public service. I think there is a degree of cynicism across the country as it relates to the political environment and the provision of public services. One of the key challenges for public servants is to work collaboratively across organizational boundaries and with political masters. We have to provide really innovative solutions that are relevant to the issues that society faces today. We need to up our game and bring evidence-based policy forward, to have a horizontal view in policy formulation and make sure services are provided cost effectively.
What advice would you have for your successor at IPAC?
We’re fortunate that, following our Annual General Meeting in August, the role of president will be in the very capable hands of Andrew Treusch, the Commissioner of the Canada Revenue Agency and a true veteran of IPAC. He understands the organization well and we certainly share the same commitment to members to continually enhance the value of IPAC. We have been working to ensure IPAC’s services and supports are relevant to the challenges faced in the workplace every day. I know Andrew will continue to build on what makes IPAC unique, closely knitting the academic research work that IPAC champions while applying scholarly work in a practical sense to find solutions for day-to-day challenges.
Let’s conclude with the Ontario Public Service. You’ve been in the OPS for close to 30 years now. Could you give advice to the next generation coming up through the ranks based on all of your experience: What do they need to build into their portfolios to be successful and make the OPS as great as it is?
I’ve had an absolutely terrific career. My experience in different policy fields, the relationships I’ve built with stakeholders, the understanding of the political world that we serve has been extraordinary. I feel entirely privileged that I’ve had this opportunity in my life. I don’t think I could have made a better career choice than joining the OPS. I expect those opportunities are going to be available to a new group of public servants. When I look around my ministry, I see extraordinarily smart, diligent and thoughtful new public servants that are coming through the system. They are bringing different perspective into the workplace, a much more diverse perspective than we had. I’m very optimistic about the future. I think that there is a great group of young professionals that will take the baton from the old-timers and carry on.
My advice to any of those I’m mentoring is very simple. The first thing is to focus on the work that you are doing right now and make sure you are working with integrity. Make sure that you deliver the very best that you can for not only your organization but for your stakeholders as well. The citizens of the province deserve and expect the very best from us, so that focus has always been what’s driven me. In doing a good job, career normally follows. The second piece of advice is focus on your colleagues and your co-workers. Those relationships will endure through your career, make your work experience much more valuable and may also result in some long-lasting friendships. Last but not least, perseverance. Don’t give up, keep trying. The right ideas, the right policy work always surfaces. It can be challenging files that people are working on and it really requires hard work and perseverance to succeed.