This time, clean-tech executive Jonathan Wilkinson didn’t need persuading to run for office.
That wasn’t the case in the early ’90s. While working in Toronto at management consultancy Bain & Co., the Saskatoon native and Rhodes Scholar had been urged by then NDP premier Roy Romanow to relocate, take a deputy minister post and run in the next provincial election. Thanks, Wilkinson said, but no.
A decade later, after Wilkinson settled with his wife, Tara Wilkinson, in her hometown of Vancouver, he received a personal West Coast visit from Romanow’s successor, Lorne Calvert. The NDP premier offered Wilkinson a Crown corporation position with which to bide his time before a run for office. As part of the heavy sell, Calvert even had his female cabinet ministers phone Wilkinson’s wife to persuade her as to the merits of the move. Again, Wilkinson said no.
This federal election, Wilkinson finally did an about-face and said yes to running in North Vancouver for the Liberals, winning by a large margin in one of the highest voter turnouts in the province. However, Wilkinson’s decision had nothing to do with his riding having a postal code beginning with the letter V.
“Like many people, I was concerned where Canada was headed not only on policy issues, but on the integrity of democratic processes,” Wilkinson said. “For one, there was a need to have the return of science and data informing good public policy decision-making.”
The other influence, Wilkinson said, was the desire to move Canada’s singular focus on fossil fuels under Stephen Harper’s Tories into a broader, transitional strategy that incorporates cleaner energy.
“Thinking forward, this world is going to be moving to a lower-carbon economy,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that oil, coal and natural gas are not going to be important to us in the future, but they certainly will not be the kinds of engines of growth they have been in the past. Clean tech will be one of the fastest-growing industries in the world over the next 50 years. Canada needs to be a part of that.”
Wilkinson’s previous political aversion wasn’t due to any aversion to the Saskatchewan NDP. He has been a self-avowed Prairie social democrat who embraced the NDP provincial party’s combination of fiscal prudence and dirt-under-your-fingernails social values. During undergrad studies at University of Saskatchewan, he was an ardent NDP youth supporter and worked on Romanow’s successful leadership campaign.
For his two master’s degrees at Oxford and McGill universities, Wilkinson focused on different areas of political science. Following postgraduate studies, he put his knowledge to work as a constitutional negotiator and a federal-provincial relations specialist for Romanow during the drafting of the Charlottetown Accord.
Wilkinson said that in deciding to run for office, he thought the federal Liberals best reflected his economic and social values. He doesn’t see his new role, helping foster change in Ottawa as a Liberal MP, as being much different from his string of executive roles in the clean-technology sector. For Wilkinson, both public and executive offices can serve the public good.
“My parents always had this view that we needed to give back to the community. Even though my parents were by no means well off, we were made cognizant of the fact there were others who were in greater need than we were. My parents did that mostly through the work they did. That had a fundamental impact on me.”
Wilkinson’s father was a community development worker mainly working with First Nations members in Saskatchewan; his mother was a social worker. Looking for the ideal role when he moved to Vancouver, Wilkinson said he entered into clean tech with his parents’ professional philosophy in mind.
“I was looking for something that would be entrepreneurial and part of a business environment, but also have a social or environmental imperative that would make me feel like I was making a contribution to society through the work I did every day,” he said.
However, Wilkinson is equal measures idealist and realist – his companies have focused on technology that improves our environmental footprint, but at the same time they’ve also had industrial applications to mining and oilsands development.
As CEO of QuestAir, Wilkinson led the gas purification and recovery firm along the difficult journey from research stage to IPO to commercialization and, ultimately, acquisition. At biomass energy firm Nexterra, he helped establish the company’s eventual business presence in the U.K. And, after being headhunted to lead waste-water and metals recovery firm BioteQ, he partnered with a large Chinese mining firm to build two new joint venture plants, and with Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B) on a new technology to remove selenium from mine effluent.
Well-known Vancouver venture capitalist Michael Brown was chairman of QuestAir and part of the hiring committee that brought on Wilkinson for what was first a senior vice-president role. Wilkinson’s affinity for leadership became quickly apparent, Brown said. In business, pundits often applaud the binary leadership approach – the “my way or the highway.” However, that style doesn’t translate into wins if you’re working in a nascent sector that’s based more on faith and vision.
“He’s what I call in a very friendly way a Prairie socialist,” said Brown, founder of venture capital funds Ventures West and Chrysalix. “The socialist breed from Saskatchewan is composed of fiercely independent people who know that to get certain kinds of things done they have to collaborate. On the one hand he’s very entrepreneurial, but on the other hand he understands the importance of collaboration. I would be hard pressed to think of someone who quit [QuestAir] because they didn’t like the way they ran the company.”
In fact, much of the QuestAir team remains intact at what is now known as Inventys. Wilkinson and Justin Trudeau stopped by Inventys for a photo op and glad-handing during a Vancouver swing in the campaign.
Steve Kukucha, adviser to the Liberals’ Western Canada campaign, knew Wilkinson during his days working for Ballard Power Systems (TSX:BLD). At the time, both Ballard and QuestAir were involved in the development of fuel cells and supporting the hydrogen highway. Kukucha said Wilkinson has the right background to develop the clean-tech component of Canada’s economic and climate change strategy.
“He’s been inside government, he’s seen the mechanics, he’s worked at a deputy minister’s level, but he’s also been in industry, which gives him a unique perspective,” he said. “Very few people bring that level of experience and expertise to the table.”