RJ Burnside News

Will Ontario’s Infrastructure Renewal Campaign Benefit Consultants the Way Hydro Quebec’s Projects Did?

From December 2016 Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine

It is a documented fact in The Role of Hydro Quebec in the Rise of Consulting Engineering in Montreal 1944 – 1922: An easy in oral history and company genealogy. Langford, Debresson, that the policies of the Quebec government, vis a vis the operations of Hydro Quebec, at one time gave rise to phenomenal development of the world-renowned consulting engineering industry in that province.

The consulting engineering industry in Quebec continued to develop and, prior to present day consolidation, provide a good number of firms that were a key factor in Canada’s ability to access a very large portion of international consulting projects procured by international finance institutions such as the World Bank. Needless to say, this became a significant contributor to economic development in both Quebec and in Canada. It is also one of the main factors for the respect that Canadian engineers currenly enjoy throughout the world.

One could draw a similar parallel in Ontario when, in the 1970s, the Ontario Water Resources Commission (OWRC), a predecessor of the present-day Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC), led to numerous public infrastructure projects throughout communities in the province to improve wayer supply, sewage collection and treatment services.

A number of small firms grew up to become highly respected for their innovation and development of technical capacity. This became necessary as many communities, for example, improved their basic sewage treatment from small facultative lagoons to advanced treatment processes. These projects became very effective in resolving many of the environmental challenges of the day, such as eutrophication in Lake Erie. Unfortunately, only one or two of those firms now remain. That’s an issue for another time.

One of today’s challenges, the large deficit in the renewal and expansion of public infrastructure, is a priority that all levels of government are working at to resolve. Large investment by both public and private participants will be needed. In order to deliver on these priorities, governments have set up a number of public agencies to manage the large projects that will result. It is a different time, although really not that much different from the mandates of Hydro Quebec and the OWRC in the past.

So, what will be the philosophy in the procurement of the projects associate with these large investments? Will these be bundled in such a manner that only a very small number of firms in the province will have any opportunity to qualify? Or, perhaps these will be so large and complex that not even the large firms will be able to qualify. If so, it may be necessary to go outside to the international market. What then will happen to the other 99% of the consulting firms?

Left to the public agencies responsible for the implementation of these projects and their limitations with management resources, it will certainly be easier and even necessary to follow the path of “bundle them up and move them out.”

If these projects were to be broken down into smaller sections, it would be necessary to either grow the public entities by adding a lot more staff, or perhaps outsource some of the agency management to the private sector, just as Hydro Quebec did.

The beneficiaries would be: public interest, as there would be more competition and higher participation by a wider segment of the consulting industry. This would lead to greater development of local consulting capacity and increased economic benefits to the province.

If there is to be wider participation in these projects, there will need to be the type of long-term vision that the Quebec government demonstrated back in the 1960s through its management of Hydro Quebec. A half a century later, will government have a similar vision in Ontario? If they do, is there sufficient time to do this? We can only hope so.

Rui De Carvalho, M. Eng., P. Eng., BCEE
Senior Vice President

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