OTTAWA (CP) — The new man behind the wheel of Industry Canada is steering his department's attention toward the automotive industry, making support for the sector one of his top priorities.
Jim Prentice took over the portfolio last month from Maxime Bernier, a free-market proponent whose baby was telecom deregulation.
In contrast, Prentice has focused on an area that typically has clamored for government attention and intervention. Within weeks of taking on the job, he organized meetings with the top automakers, union leaders and other key players and intends on meeting with Detroit-based presidents soon.
''It was literally one of the first industries that I fully immersed myself in to make sure that I understood the dynamics of the industry,'' Prentice said in an interview Tuesday.
''I read everything I could get my hands on and sat down with as many of the leaders as I could to talk about it.''
The attention has garnered glowing reviews from some unlikely sources.
''He indicated that he was going to be very hands-on, that he recognized this as Canada's most important industry, and he wanted to be part of getting it back to its former glory instead of sitting idly by and saying let the market determine that,'' said Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.
''One had to be optimistic after leaving the meeting with him.''
The main question on the minds of those in the industry is whether the Conservative government plans to move forward with an automotive strategy for a sector that accounts for more than half a million direct and indirect jobs in Canada.
Under the former Liberal government, then Industry minister David Emerson had been poised to unveil such a policy when the election was called.
The sector has been under pressure from a variety of corners, whether it be the soaring loonie, competition for business from the southern states and Latin America or depressed Big Three car sales.
Prentice was cagey about his game plan but didn't rule out an auto strategy.
''All I would say at this point is that I'm focusing a lot of attention on understanding the industry and learning what the concerns are of workers and companies and in the days ahead I'll speak once I feel that I know the way forward and had further discussions with industry.''
Some of the concerns the Calgary-area MP has taken note of are ease of mobility across the Canada-U.S. border and regulatory harmonization. Eliminating small changes in standards or regulations to smooth cross-border trade was one of the few priorities to emerge from last month's summit of North American leaders.
''They've provided me with an inventory of those differences, which I'll be working with my colleagues on,'' Prentice said.
Mark Nantais, president of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association, said executives were encouraged by their recent meeting with Prentice.
''We now have had a number of meetings with this government, I think they now understand the critical nature of the auto industry in Ontario and the manufacturing industry overall,'' said Nantais.
''These are high-paying jobs, these are high-tech jobs, and to lose those jobs would be very unfortunate for Canada's overall economy.''