Tombstones to What Might Have Been!

My wife and I were about to take our seats at a concert at the National Art Centre when she turned to me and said, I would like you to meet David Dingwall. As an interpreter for the House of Commons, she got to know the former Liberal Cabinet Minister during one of his many many appearances before Committees of Parliament.

It was completely fortuitous that our seat selection was next to his.

During the intermission I talked to David – we were now on a first name basis – about the standoff between Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation and the Department of Indian Affairs which wanted OFNTSC to surrender control of a sophisticated management information system we had developed to monitor housing conditions in First Nation communities.

He was no longer in government, but he would see if he could arrange a meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs.

He would eventually arrange a meeting with an assistant to the Minister. Before this meeting, I met with Michael Cowpland whose company had donated more than $ 250,000 in software and expertise to build the system that monitored and reported on living conditions in selected First Nations Communities in Northern Ontario where housing conditions were the most deplorable.

It was our hope that the government would continue funding and expanding this initiative across Canada (British Columbia, which had tested the Ontario solution and issued a glowing recommendation for its use in that province, and Alberta which was about to do the same) and finally get a handle on the housing crisis in First Nation communities.

I stood across from Michael Cowpland with only the width of a long boardroom table between us and briefed him on where we were at. He was not interested in meeting with this Minister’s assistant; he reckoned it would be a waste of time, and he was right.

I then asked him if he could get in touch with the Honorable John Manley, then Minister of Industry and his Member of Parliament. That is when the storm erupted.

He jumped out of his chair, leaned forward placing his hands palm down on the table and shouted “your solution is for me to talk to a politician!” and stormed out of the room leaving the dozen or so of us, his senior management and the decision makers at Ontario First Nations which had travelled from Toronto for this crucial meeting, in stunned silence.

If you have read The Power Of The Small-Minded you know why the founder of the Corel Corporation had developed a disdained for politicians and that talking to them or breathing the same air was out of the question.

Before we had time to gather our thoughts, he briskly walked back into the room, sat down and apologized for his outburst. He asked if I had any other suggestions. I did not, and the meeting adjourned. There died another dream!

As predicted the meeting with the Minister’s assistance was a planned waste of our time by Indian Affairs bureaucrats. This was evident when we were asked to include in our proposal an estimate on how much the life of an aboriginal was worth and factor that into the cost of providing this potentially life-saving technology to First Nations across Canada.

More than a decade later, and a few hundred millions wasted, the Department of Indian Affairs is still trying to repeat an amazing First Nation high-tech accomplishment they sabotaged.

Oracle Corporation of Redwood City, California got the millions that should have gone to the ZIM Corporation of Ottawa and one vision died to give rise to another.

Michael Cowpland next turned his attention to making the supper-efficient supple ZIM the platform that would deliver SMS (Short Message Service) to the world. With a little bit more luck and a sustained revenue stream that a government that cared about supporting superior home grown advanced technology would have made possible, he just might have succeeded in making twitter a Canadian success story.

A national landscape littered with tombstones to what might have been means that Canada may soon run out, if it has not already done so, of pioneering visionaries like Michael Cowpland, and that is a real shame and a national disgrace.

Bernard Payeur, January 2, 2014