Speech from the Throne

Motion for Address in Reply—Debate Continued

October 4, 2018


The Honourable Senator Colin Deacon :

Honourable senators, it’s with a tremendous sense of honour and responsibility that I rise in this chamber for the first time, speaking in reply to the Speech from the Throne.

I must begin by noting that I was appointed last June and it’s now the beginning of October. My family and friends will never believe that I’ve been in any room that long without speaking. I’ll refer them to Hansard for evidence.

I want to begin by thanking Senator Harder, Senator Smith, Senator Woo and Senator Downe for the very kind words they said upon my introduction to the chamber last June.

I also want to thank the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, for recommending my appointment to this chamber. His only request during our conversation was that I use my new position to “challenge the government.” I trust he won’t regret that. I look forward to joining you as we consider and debate policies and legislation to advance economic and social opportunity in Canada.

The Speech from the Throne that opened this Parliament almost three years ago began with the following statement:

I call on all parliamentarians to work together, with a renewed spirit of innovation, openness and collaboration.

Honourable senators, those three words have been at the core of my life: innovation, openness and collaboration.

I began my career 39 years ago — hard to believe, amazing looking back — in the world of finance. I was working as an oil and gas research analyst in “the City,” London, England’s storied financial district. I learned a lot in my 10 years as an investment adviser in London, Toronto and here in Ottawa. I learned about the importance of building relationships based on mutual respect and trust. I learned about accountability, regulation and ethics. I learned about what motivates and what doesn’t. While I concluded that this field wasn’t for me, the experience I gained proved highly valuable when I did stumble upon my passion, the world of innovation and start-ups.

A lot of people hear the word “start-up” and they immediately think about the end product, a cutting-edge technology, but that’s backwards in my experience. Start-ups are about addressing a problem, a need, a priority. I found that the most successful start-ups begin with a great problem, a clearly definable problem faced by identifiable people whether they recognize it or not, a problem where value is created as it’s addressed. I think I’ve come to the right place because the Senate shares responsibility for helping our nation to deal with some pretty complex problems.

I grew up on a farm in southern Ontario. I often heard the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What was true on the farm is true for start-ups. It doesn’t matter how cool the technology or the research or the policy solution might be, make sure you really understand the problem before you try and fix it.

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My introduction to the start-up world came through work I did with the Medical Research Council of Canada, now the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, about 25 years ago. I quickly found that Canada has some of the very best medical researchers in the world, doing extraordinary work in university and hospital labs across our country. Too much of that knowledge sits in labs never delivering benefits to patients, opportunities to providers or jobs and wealth to communities. One of the main reasons is a failed connection between the researcher’s discovery and the entrepreneurs and other partners who can successfully apply that solution to meet a pressing need.

If the research discovery is not connected to a specific customer and problem, then it’s the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear. When it works, when you bring Canadian research out of the university lab to a stage where it’s actually applied, helping people in Canada and around the world, now that’s satisfying.

That’s been my experience with BlueLight Analytics. I came across a seemingly minor discovery at Dalhousie University, but it provided a unique insight into a really big clinical problem in restorative dentistry. That’s the world of dental fillings and I know we all love those.

You’ll be surprised to learn that there are more than $60 billion of fillings placed every year into North American mouths, but they’re only lasting a third as long as they did two decades ago. The problem isn’t the quality of the materials or the skill of the dentist, it’s the information available to the dentist at the chair side. Unbeknownst to the dentist, the blue light or the curing light used to cure those fillings in patients’ mouths — and many of you have had that done — often doesn’t deliver the correct energy. This is an invisible problem that has a big impact on patient care.

At BlueLight we used our understanding of this problem to build a global business with customers in 35 countries. The talented team leading this work has expertise in dental materials, optics, machine learning, design thinking, the so-called “internet of things” and enterprise level sales. It started because of one small but important insight, but it is succeeding because it answers some very real problems faced by dental manufacturers and dentists.

We were only able to commercialize the technology because we raised seed capital from angel investors and because this private equity enabled us to access important federal programs like ACOA, SR&ED and IRAP.

I can personally attest to the importance of these federal programs for start-ups. They play a crucial role as Halifax and Atlantic Canada become a start-up hub, attracting investment from sophisticated investors in Europe, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Boston and even some pretty impressive groups in Upper and Lower Canada, as we say in the Maritimes.

I’ll share one more story — about Kay MacPhee, a schoolteacher on Prince Edward Island, a single mother of two, one of whom was born profoundly deaf. Kay travelled across North America to learn the best techniques to teach her son to speak and read. In the mid-1970s, she stumbled upon the realization that those with dyslexia experienced tremendous improvements in their reading skills when she used the techniques that worked for hearing-impaired kids. This was a crucial discovery — a crucial insight. She developed a program called SpellRead, and it proved groundbreaking for people of all ages who were struggling to read. It actually worked.

I first discovered SpellRead by chance, when it was a small program being taught to 25 students in Charlottetown. The company was so small at that time that their business cards didn’t even have an area code. We turned Kay’s knowledge into a scalable program, built a team, raised some equity and eventually expanded to 200 individual locations.

The program was studied by leading U.S. researchers, written up in numerous publications and presented at the 2002 World Congress on Dyslexia. In all cases the researchers reported that SpellRead “closed the gap” in reading skills of severely reading disabled students as compared to their peers with normal reading skills.

But what I saw week after week made the reports, clinical studies and high praise pale by comparison. I got to visit inner city schools in New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and many other locations, and I got to meet these kids who struggled with reading and other significant barriers in their lives.

It was deeply inspiring to watch kids in the SpellRead classes as their world started to open up before them. Whether in Grade 1, Grade 9 or an adult, the students needed no convincing as to the importance of learning to read, they just needed to be provided a program that worked.

We all know the statistics — the high correlation between literacy skills, employment, economic success and good health. The impact of this innovation was truly priceless. But, again, the idea itself — in this case the SpellRead program — is of limited value without a sustainable business case. Without it, 25 students benefited. But with it, thousands of students in 200 locations, mainly in the United States, were able to benefit from the program.

You will have noticed I said we were mainly in the United States. We tried and failed to interest Canadian schools in the program. As many of you know, Canada’s illiteracy rate is far too high and disproportionately affects our most vulnerable citizens. Illiteracy has been the subject of 50 years of federal and provincial studies, legislative efforts and shared programs yet the problem persists.

Even this week, one of our colleagues spoke passionately about this important issue. I was more than pleased to realize that no fewer than five of my new colleagues — that I’m very glad to call my new colleagues — have spoken about the economic and social anchor of illiteracy in this chamber recently.

I believe the problem persists because of how we have defined it. For example, in the House of Commons — or perhaps I should say “the other place” — there have been repeated efforts to pass a bill establishing a national literacy policy promoting appreciation of the importance of literacy. I believe that bill misses the boat. It’s focuses on the wrong problem.

I’ve met hundreds of people who struggle with literacy but not one who lacked the desire to learn to read or awareness of its importance. Too often they avoid seeking help to avoid the pain of repeated failure. I think it’s fundamentally unfair to ask some of our most vulnerable citizens to try harder, unless we’re absolutely certain that we’re using effective, evidence-based instructional methods.

As I say, that was the approach in the other place. This chamber took a different approach in the 2009 report from the Senate Social Affairs Committee, called Early Childhood Development and Care: Next Steps. It supported an evidence-based approach to reducing the risk of illiteracy and helping our most vulnerable citizens to succeed. It proposed using evidence-based programming to ensure that all children have effective foundational skills.

You wouldn’t think that would be groundbreaking in 2009 but it was. From my perspective, the report connected the right problem to the right solution. SpellRead provided me with irrefutable evidence that the problem is never one of motivation; the problem is that our current teaching methods aren’t working for too many kids. Students aren’t failing; we’re failing students.

Colleagues, I hope you see why I am so passionate about start-ups. They’re about so much more than just technology. They’re about helping real people to solve real problems. That’s why I applied to become a member of this chamber.

I want to amplify the voices of entrepreneurs in the Senate of Canada so that together we can work to create and improve the conditions to enable our entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive and grow. They’re the prow of our economic ship. Theirs are the voices that are creating our future. The problems they’re grappling with are our problems, too. The potential is tremendously exciting.

But there’s a lot of work to do. In May, the Conference Board of Canada issued its annual report card on innovation, reporting that Canada and nearly all of our provinces are losing ground as our international peers are surging ahead. That report makes for sober reading, but there is a bright spot. Canada earned its only A for entrepreneurial ambition, which is, in the words of this report, “a measure of the share of the working-age population reporting early-stage entrepreneurial activity, such as attempts to establish or own a new business.”

This says that Canadians are ready to seize the opportunities of this age of innovation. They’re not looking for government to prop them up, but they are looking for government to help them push ahead.

The world is being transformed by disruptive technologies and the potential seems limitless, but we cannot afford to watch from the sidelines. Today, if you aren’t disrupting then you had better look out because you’re in the midst of being disrupted. That’s true for our whole economy.

For some perspective on how fast the world is changing just remember that 10 years ago there was no Uber, Kickstarter, bitcoin, and even the iPads we all use in this chamber didn’t yet exist. SkipTheDishes was just an idea five or six years ago. Now it’s a huge employer in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

The perspective I intend to bring to the scrutiny of legislation is grounded in my experience. What I’ve seen makes me hopeful that what works in the world of innovation can benefits the world of public policy and legislative review. That is, to first understand the problem before looking to design or scrutinize a proposed solution, to test your hypothesis and have your decision informed by evidence and to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress.

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Annette Verschuren is a hero of mine. You will likely know her as one of Canada’s most successful executives. She co-founded Michaels Stores in Canada, led Home Depot Canada’s growth and is now chair and CEO of NRStor, a leader in commercializing energy storage technologies.

Annette didn’t come from the corporate world or a life of privilege. She grew up as part of an immigrant family that struggled to make ends meet on a dairy farm in North Sydney, Cape Breton.

In her book, Bet On Me, Annette describes “good” and “bad” as blindfolds, dividing the world into false dichotomies with each side unable or unwilling to see the other’s point of view. She’s written that:

. . . this Good/Bad blindfold is killing the ability to innovate and collaborate at a time in history when we need innovation and inspired leadership more than ever before.

Annette’s approach is “not good, not bad, only better.” I agree with that. It applies to the business world and it applies to this chamber as well.

We’ve all seen the polarizing effect of opposing sides arguing their own “good” against the other side’s “bad,” and the result is that nothing — or very little — actually gets done.

There is a lot of talk, in this chamber and around the world, about the best ways to combat the dangers of polarization. Colleagues, in my short time here, I’ve been given hope. I’ve seen issues of great importance debated and assessed with seriousness and respect. Very different viewpoints are presented, but the goal increasingly is not focused on good or bad, but better. I’m so proud and honoured to be part of that kind of political debate.

I look forward to working with each of you in the weeks and months and, hopefully, years ahead.

I cannot close without acknowledging my debt to my wife, Jennifer. Thank you for encouraging me to set out on this new path. As always, we travel it together. Thank you.