Infrastructure prevailed as one of the key topics on the campaign trail during the 2015 federal election and it also was the top newsmaker this year for the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Canada (ACEC).
"It was gratifying to see that infrastructure was so high on the political radar," says CCA president Michael Atkinson.
"I can remember 15, 20 years ago, where some of us used to sit down and say how can we get infrastructure on the list of agenda topics." John Gamble, ACEC president and CEO, says it's been a long time coming.
"This is a payoff for years and years of work to get infrastructure into the political consciousness," he says. "It was having government re-embrace the notion of infrastructure as an investment to be leveraged, rather than an expense to be minimized."
Investment was top of mind for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who became Canada's prime minister on Oct. 19. His party secured a majority with 184 seats after one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history. Trudeau committed to almost doubling federal infrastructure investment to $125 billion from the current $65 billion over 10 years.
"There's been somewhat of a renaissance if you will with respect to infrastructure," Atkinson adds.
He and Gamble acknowledge the importance of working with government to make sure investments are made that benefit the industry and Canada. "We want to work very closely with the government to make this program a success," Gamble states. "It's good for Canada, it's good for business."
But what does the future hold for Canada and the construction industry? For Atkinson, it depends on where you are and what part of the industry you're in. "When I look at the positive side of the ledger, what's even more heartening ... is we have provincial governments, who are faced with real fiscal challenges, who are nevertheless remaining committed to some pretty significant infrastructure programs," he says.
"It is a bit of a plus and minus thing. We're going to see the resource sector hit pretty hard and I don't think we've actually seen the full brunt of that yet because the construction industry is usually the last to feel the pain."
The resource sector was also explored by ACEC in 2015 and is an area Gamble says he'll be watching. In 2015, ACEC, along with the Mining Association of Canada, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, and the Yukon Chamber of Mines produced a report about the importance of pursuing mining opportunities in Canada's north. The report suggested further strategic investment or taxation policy reform to better entice companies to pursue exploration and development endeavours.
"The mining sector is a very important part of local economies. Without that presence it has a significant impact on local tax bases and regions that are already struggling," Gamble explains, adding the absence of infrastructure is a challenge.
"It's critical mass to develop community infrastructure in regions that are especially difficult to provide a high standard of living and quality infrastructure. We'll be working together with our partners to share the conclusions. It's probably more important than ever at the moment."
Atkinson adds that a looming labour shortage cannot be ignored. According to BuildForce Canada's forecast, released in March 2015, up to 250,000 construction workers, or 21 per cent of the workforce, is set to retire in the next decade. "Just because we may be going into a bit of slowing growth in certain sectors of our economy and in the construction world, doesn't mean that we take our eye off the ball in terms of ensuring that we have the labour force that we're going to need in the future," Atkinson adds.
Because of the federal government's strong commitment to infrastructure, both Gamble and Atkinson state it's also important to make sure the environmental assessment (EA) process doesn't slow down progress.
"The Liberal government said that they essentially wanted to undo a lot of what the Conservatives had done (with regards to EAs)," Atkinson says.
He adds that the government wanted to make the process "more meaningful, which is all good, provided the process maintains certain fundamental principles from our perspective: Certainty. Timeliness and (that it's) rational. I think what the construction industry wants to be assured of though, is that the process has some finality to it so that when the green light goes on for a project to start that we don't have to worry about it going to amber or red."
Gamble adds, "What we want to resist are those that advocate for more bureaucracy and more red tape as a form of environmental protection."
He also points out that this is a good time to reiterate the importance of qualification-based selection for infrastructure projects, which some of ACEC's member organizations, like Consulting Engineers of Ontario, ACEC British Columbia and Consulting Engineers of Alberta are doing.
"There's going to be a lot of scrutiny to make sure that they're (the government) getting value for those investments — that Canadians are getting the benefits they've been promised," he says. "One way to make that happen is through the use of qualification-based selection in selecting professional consultants."