Katherine Barr on Canada's Advisory Council on Economic Growth

December 7, 2016

PUBLISHED BY Peter Kuitenbrouwer

SOURCE Financial Post Magazine

With its stone chimneys and wooden verandas in the Queen Anne Revival style, the house that Thomas Willson, the Ontario inventor and industrialist, built on 
a cliff overlooking Meech Lake north of Ottawa a century ago is a grand, rustic 
summer estate. In the middle of May, the house, now federally owned, welcomed 
a gathering worthy of its grandeur. Cabinet ministers included Bill Morneau, 
finance; Amarjeet Sohi, infrastructure; MaryAnn Mihychuk, employment; 
Navdeep Bains, innovation; and Chrystia Freeland, international trade.

The ministers came to meet Morneau’s economic advisers, a group that includes two PhDs in chemistry, two venture-capital gurus based in Silicon Valley, the chief economist of the World Economic Forum, and a consultant from a First Nation on the north tip of Vancouver Island known for success in aboriginal economic development. Oh, and it just so happens that everyone on that list is a woman.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his majority-women cabinet last year, some dismissed the move as window dressing. Politicians, after all, are the people on stage — the actors who mouth other people’s thoughts. Then Morneau named his Advisory Council on Economic Growth, whom he asked for a strategy, given our aging population, “to provide higher living standards and greater opportunity for the middle class.”

Morneau chose eight women and six men for this elite group of advisers who met at Meech Lake. This gender balance suggests something more radical. Economic advisers are the puppet masters: they decide what strings to pull, and make the big decisions about what moves would benefit the country. To put more women than men on a group of policy wonks in the backroom suggests, quite simply, that women are the best economic advisers around.

“There was a real effort to find people with different perspectives,” says Suzanne Fortier, principal of Montreal’s McGill University and an advisory council member, who studies artificial intelligence methodologies for protein structure determination. “If the search process is broader, you will get the names.”

By casting a wide net, Morneau appears to have found the best and brightest — the majority of whom just happen to be women. For example, Katherine Barr grew up jumping horses on the farm of Ian Miller, the equestrian Olympian, in Perth, Ont. The mother of two is now a general partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures and managing director at Wildcat Venture Partners, both early stage technology venture firms based in Silicon Valley. Married to a fellow Canadian she met in California, she also helped found C100, which connects Canadian tech startups with U.S. venture capital, and sits on the board of Communitech, a Waterloo, Ont.-based organization that helps entrepreneurs.

Barr may live far away from Ottawa, and the $1 per year she gets for her work on Morneau’s council translates to just 75¢ U.S., but she calls it an “honour” to do her bit to help Canada become more outward-looking. “When we first got C100 off the ground, we were accused of being a brain drain,” she says. “I think that’s really small-minded thinking. We call ourselves more like a bridge. Why isn’t Canada better positioned to leverage the expats living around the world, to increase prosperity and to increase connection globally? To me, it’s this amazing connection that all the Canadian expats offer — we call it a brain flow for people and ideas and business to flow between Canada and places like Silicon Valley.”

Read the full article on Financial Post here.