Canada’s innovation challenge

Canada’s competitiveness is being held back by the “Promise Doctrine,” but the Trudeau government has an opportunity for reform.

Mark GraysonJune 9, 2016

Canada’s innovation challenge.

Canada is well-respected as a global leader. While no country is free of problems, Canada enjoys a strong economy, largely happy and healthy citizens and strong alliances with nations throughout the world and especially with the United States – its largest trading partner. Yet for all of Canada’s strengths, the World Economic Forum's Global Competiveness Ranking shows that Canada has dropped from the ranks of the world’s leading nations, slipping from 11th to 22nd in one year.

The largest obstacle to improving Canada’s economic growth is the lack of support for policies that encourage and promote innovation. Since 2001, Canada’s R&D expenditures have decreased while those in Japan, the United States, China, Korea and even much of Europe have grown. In Canada, this decline is due in large part to the stagnation of public and private spending on pharmaceuticals, a research-intensive sector that drives innovation and new cures. The cause for this stagnation: Canada’s application of the “Promise Doctrine”, a legal framework that arbitrarily requires information at the time a patent is filed that is typically shown much later through clinical trials. The “Promise Doctrine” confounds the time-tested way innovators turn basic research into new treatments and cures, deterring investment rather than encouraging it.  

Christopher Sands, a senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), echoed the argument that Canada’s IP protections are lacking in a recent Op-Ed where he states “In the case of pharmaceuticals, Canadian courts have contributed to uncertainty by asserting that patent holders whose discoveries do not live up to the "promise" they were said to have when the patent was sought can lose their patent.”  

The Trudeau government has stated the need for Canada to refocus on developing its innovation economy and spurring its competitiveness. In fact, a new paper by the Canadian American Business Council (CABC) lays out steps for the Government of Canada to advance its innovation agenda and grow the Canadian economy. The new leadership has voiced support for a number of reforms and would be well-advised to consider the elimination of the “Promise Doctrine” as the government explores ways to spark the economy and encourage a new generation of risk takers and visionaries.

To learn more about Canada’s intellectual property system and the “Promise Doctrine,” visit

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