Ontario Premier Doug Ford was met with a chorus of boos and sparse applause as he took the stage at the Collision tech conference in Toronto on Tuesday — the same day that news broke that the province slashed $24 million in artificial intelligence research.
"Thank you for the warm welcome, my friends," Ford said after being introduced by the conference's co-host, Sunil Sharma.
Ford appeared at the conference one day after Prime Minister Trudeau made the case to attendees Monday evening that Canada has immigration to thank for its thriving technology sector. The four-day conference is being held in Canada for the first time and is set to take place in Ontario for the next three years.
The premier — whose government has come under fire for recent cuts to the science and tech sectors, including scrapping funding for stem-cell research earlier this month — told audience members Ontario is "committed to standing with the tech sectors shoulder to shoulder" and made a direct appeal to those present to choose this province to grow their businesses.
"If you want to expand, if you want to grow and you want to prosper and thrive, the likes of which you've never seen before, come to Ontario, invest in Ontario," Ford said in closing. "Thank you and God bless each and every one of you."
Tories look to eliminate $11.7B-deficit
As part of his appeal, Ford cited "44 leading colleges and universities that produce more than 50,000 STEM graduates each year" and curricula that go "back to the basics" with a focus on math and science.
Ford's comments come as the Tories are trying to eliminate an $11.7-billion deficit with cuts across a series of industries.
Among the cuts are:
- Nearly $52 million for health policy and research, including a large reduction to the Health System Research Fund that contributes to research relevant to provincial policy.
- $5 million in planned annual funding — starting next year — to a stem cell research institute. The Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine recently announced its 2019-20 funding for research projects, including for new cell treatments for lung injuries in babies, generation of heart pacemaker cells from stem cells, and stimulating muscle repair for a severe type of muscular dystrophy.
- $24 million in funding for artificial intelligence research to two institutes: the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. When the Vector Institute was launched in 2017, the Liberal government at the time said the province's investment would help encourage research and development and create jobs. Later that year it introduced a $30 million program for developing the work force, funding master's degree scholarships and creating new AI master's programs. The Tories cut that to $10 million.
A spokeswoman for the economic development minister said the government's understanding is that the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine "will continue to do great work for the sector with private industry funding."
"We have to find small efficiencies across the board," Ford said Tuesday. "It's not sustainable."
'Dragging Ontario backwards'
Some in the field argue that the province's words and actions may not line up.
"We are seeing mixed signals from this government," said Daniel Munro, visiting scholar at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
"On the one hand, they say that they are 'open for business,' they're interested in finding ways to make companies more innovative and helping to produce jobs. On the other hand, we're seeing cuts to some really important interesting programs," he said.
"I think that mix of messages alone is enough for the tech world or the tech community in Toronto and in Ontario to be concerned ... If you're a tech company that's thinking about where to start up or you're somebody who's thinking about where to invest, you're look at Ontario now as sort of having a more uncertain environment than it did."
For its part, the head of the Vector Institute said the organization has a "strong and productive" working relationship with the province.
"Ontario is unequivocally a top destination in the world for the best talent and companies pursuing AI and the Vector Institute will continue to work with the province to help maintain Ontario's leadership position," president and CEO Garth Gibson said in a statement.
But the NDP's employment, research and innovation critic was much more direct, saying cutting AI funding is short-sighted.
"Instead of preparing our province for the economy of the future, Ford and his Conservatives are dragging Ontario backwards by ripping away resources that support innovation and job creation," Catherine Fife said in a statement.