Change Agent

Change Agents 2016: Bardish Chagger, Government of Canada

Canadian Business: Change Agents 2016
Bardish Chagger
Bardish Chagger (Portrait by Jessica Deeks)

Bardish Chagger

Minister for Small Business and Tourism and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Follow: @BardishKW
Follow: @MinofSBT

Why she matters: Crafting policy to help small businesses grow

At the start of last year’s federal election campaign, Bardish Chagger left Waterloo, Ont., for an out-of-town meeting. “When I came back, my campaign signs were everywhere,” she recalls. “I don’t tend to look at myself that often.” Seeing her own face on billboards and lawn signs brought home to Chagger—until then, mostly a Liberal backroom operative—how much things had changed.

The member of Parliament from Waterloo is likely now more accustomed to being in the public eye, having become one of the most prominent figures in the federal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Chagger minister of small business and tourism last year, and leader of the government in the House of Commons in August. Between advancing the government’s agenda in the lower chamber and her mandate to help the country’s small firms become “more productive, more innovative and more export-oriented,” Chagger’s impact on Canada’s economic future could be considerable.

As she likes to remind people, Chagger got an early start in politics. Former MP Andrew Telegdi first met her when she volunteered for his 1993 federal campaign. “She was 13 years old,” he says. “You tend to notice that.” After she graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelor of science degree, Telegdi hired her as an executive assistant. Chagger proved to be “a quick study,” he says, and adept at dealing with constituents’ concerns. When she ran for the Liberal nomination in 2015, Telegdi backed her bid. “I was a little bit leery when they appointed her House leader,” he admits. “I was pleasantly surprised at how well she picked up on it.” Chagger has looked comfortable in question period and will bring a more civil and co-operative tone to Parliament, he says.

High up on the list of her priorities is the government’s much-hyped Innovation Agenda, which aims to encourage entrepreneurship and grow existing companies. Chagger is undertaking a round of consultations on the proposed policy and is already focusing on some of the chief challenges for small businesses, like access to capital and talent. From her constituency office in Waterloo, Chagger has plenty of local success stories to draw on to help shape the Innovation Agenda. “I believe the model that’s worked well for the Waterloo region will substantially feed into this [policy],” she says, pointing to the talent coming out of the area’s universities and the accomplishments of startup support organization Communitech. But she’s keen to emphasize that innovation is about more than just technology, citing the example of a local female entrepreneur in the construction industry who couldn’t find workboots for women and started a company to manufacture them. “She saw that opportunity, and she was able to use government programs and services [to access international markets],” explains Chagger, whose job it is to ensure more of these small firms can find success. She’s floated some ideas in interviews, such as ensuring the federal government procures products and services from small firms, thereby giving them a marquee customer to show off abroad.

Chagger’s relationship with the small business community didn’t start off well, however: Last year’s budget froze the small business tax rate at 10.5%, breaking a campaign pledge to gradually reduce it to 9%. She responded to criticism by doggedly sticking to Liberal talking points about growing the middle class rather than addressing the issue head-on. The rookie performance only places more pressure on Chagger to put forward policies to benefit small firms. Months later, she’s eager to move on. “The reality is that the challenges facing the small business community are not single-issue,” she says.

Her impact won’t be restricted to policy: Chagger is the first woman and first person of colour to serve as House leader. Critics have charged that the Liberals’ emphasis on visible representation is hollow symbolism, but Chagger says it’s crucial to have “a government that looks like Canada,” particularly because it empowers younger members of historically under-represented populations. “When you can see yourself in [an influential] position, it opens your mind and it broadens your horizons.”

More about the 2016 Change Agents