Canada's economy is inextricably linked to our infrastructure — and it's always been so. Our nation and its economy would have developed very differently were it not for the construction of a transcontinental railway just fourteen years after Confederation in 1867.
In the afterglow of Canada's 150th anniversary, the country and the economy look vastly different than they did in 1881 when the first trains rolled from Montreal to British Columbia, by way of Kicking Horse Pass.
However, what is similar today is that we are on the verge of yet another pivotal moment in our nation's infrastructure history — one that is sure to again shape our future economy. This time, it's not the agrarian economy, but the innovation economy that will create wealth for all.
The federal government has demonstrated its commitment to infrastructure growth by dedicating nearly $190 billion over the next 10 years to its New Infrastructure Plan, with priorities centred on communities and transportation.
For the government's hallmark policy to date — the Innovation Agenda — we hear the consistent message that we need to support the people that innovate. The message needs to be the same for developing Canada's infrastructure talent, because just as it's people who innovate, it's also people who build.
So where will Canada's next-generation infrastructure talent come from? In particular, if there is a focus on infrastructure that is clean, green and smart, much of the talent is already being developed at Canada's polytechnics, colleges and institutes of technology.
Across Canada, polytechnic institutes are training the next generation of "green-collar workers" with a hands-on model of education.
In Ontario, Algonquin College and George Brown College are each leading the way in green construction. Algonquin is training tradespeople for the green economy in the Algonquin Centre of Construction Excellence — a sustainable, highly energy efficient, "living lab," complete with green roof, 22-metre-high biofilter living wall and a Platinum certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
At George Brown, plans are underway to construct a 12-story, carbon-neutral facility that will house the Tall Wood Building Research Institute — The Arbour. The Arbour will also function as a living laboratory, both during and after its construction, and will promote sustainable innovation in the applications of new wood and mass timber technologies, ultimately supporting the development of green buildings across Canada.
Alberta is leading the way to ensure we have the workforce capable of implementing innovative solutions.
What better way to learn green than to live green?
In Alberta, NAIT is building the talent that will maintain Canada's clean transportation infrastructure. Partnering with SAIT and BYD, a leader in battery technology and zero-emissions, NAIT and SAIT will deliver world-class training for certifications in the maintenance of heavy duty electric vehicles.
As Canada's energy priorities shift, Alberta is leading the way to ensure we have the workforce capable of implementing innovative solutions.
Green infrastructure capabilities are also being developed in Winnipeg Manitoba at Red River College, through their Building Envelope Technology Access Centre (BETAC). The BETAC provides a multidisciplinary environment to facilitate advancements in building technology, targeted largely at energy efficiency. At present, approximately 15 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are produced by housing — by enabling local companies to access Red River's expertise, technology and equipment, the BETAC is simultaneously helping businesses become more innovative, and Canadians reduce their carbon footprint.
Finally, in Vancouver, BCIT's Smart Microgrid is revolutionizing the way clean energy is delivered. Incorporating renewable energy sources such as wind and photovoltaic solar, the Smart Microgrid is a small-scale version of a traditional electricity system that is deployable in a range of locations. It has sparked its own research program, in partnership with government and industry, that is testing and verifying the technologies and regulations required for Canada's future smart grid.
Though Canada looks like a very different country today than it did in 1867, high-quality infrastructure that serves the needs of the people is the backbone of this country. That "backbone" is certainly more than the steel tracks, iron spikes and wooden ties we started with.
Today, zero-emissions vehicles, green and energy efficient buildings, and innovations in "off-the-grid" delivery of energy are what's necessary for Canada to succeed in the new global economy, in the same ways it succeeded for the previous 150 years.
A 21st-century economy requires the support of 21st-century infrastructure, and it's Canada's polytechnics that are delivering the talent to build it.
Nobina Robinson is the Chief Executive Officer of Polytechnics Canada, a national association of Canada's leading polytechnics and colleges.
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