Sask. trying to give local contractors more access while balancing trade requirements, local businesses told

Deputy Premier Gord Wyant listens to questions from the Prince Albert Business community on December 18, 2018. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The province is grappling with how to protect the interests of local suppliers while also honouring its interprovincial and national trade agreements, Deputy Premier Gord Wyant said in Prince Albert Tuesday.

Wyant was the keynote speaker at a luncheon put on by the Chamber of Commerce about forthcoming changes to the province’s procurement practices. The ruling Saskatchewan Party is in the process of moving to one, centralized procurement agency for all executive government ministries as a way to increase coordination, ensure the best value for taxpayers and treat Saskatchewan suppliers fairly.

According to Wyant, up until this point, various agencies and ministries hoping to procure goods, services or construction contracts have operated in different silos, which has resulted in lower value and left Saskatchewan businesses unable to compete.

“We’ve seen some significant progress,” Wyant said, “including the implementation of our best value procurement legislation, passed year before last.”

The purpose of the legislation, he said, is to ensure a fuller range of criteria in selecting contracts beyond just the lowest price. That could include cost, quality, budget, vendor experience, safety practices, innovation and local knowledge. It’s also resulted in an increased mandate for Priority Saskatchewan. The government agency used to be limited to providing advice, guidance and training, whereas it now actively works to connect Saskatchewan contractors and subcontractors with companies that win bids in their area.

While the government is doing what it can to give Saskatchewan businesses a leg up, it has to be careful, Wyant said.

“One of the reasons we’re going through this transformation process on procurement is to make sure that we give Saskatchewan contractors, Saskatchewan businesses and Saskatchewan workers the best possible opportunity to participate in these contracts, having regard to our trade obligations,” he said.

“It can be a difficult balancing act, but we’re working very, very hard on that. There are lots of ways we can use those trade agreements to the benefit of our local suppliers.”

Interprovincial trade agreements prohibit governments, including local governments and other public agencies, from discriminating against potential suppliers based on their location. A project in Alberta, for example, couldn’t reject a bid from a Saskatchewan company purely because the bidder is based in Saskatchewan.

How best to protect local businesses, including bidders, contractors and subcontractors, was one of the themes of the questions posed to Wyant by the business community.

But as BC an Alberta implement increasingly protectionist measures, Wyant claimed, Saskatchewan also has to find a way to help out companies within its jurisdiction.

One way that is done is by including local knowledge as a factor in awarding contracts. The province’s other workaround is using Priority Saskatchewan to help connect local businesses who may be able to furnish work for less with the big companies that win bids on major projects.

“A lot of people will come in and in and they’ll have their regular suppliers, but they won’t know that there’s a fellow down the street that can do fabrication, or that can provide a particular material. By making those introductions, it gives local companies an opportunity to be able to bid and compete,” he said.

Sometimes, that means holding trade fairs where bidders can come in and see exactly what help is available in a local area. That approach was used in the Chinook power generating station in Swift Current to much success, Wyant said. It’s a process called supplier development.

“One of the challenges we see — especially with our province to the west of us — (is) a lot of our contractors are being shut out of contracts. We see it all the time,” Wyant said.

“The more we introduce small, medium-sized and large companies to people that win these significant contracts, the more work is going to be coming to local contractors and local employees and suppliers.”

If a big project were to come to Prince Albert for example, Wyant said, Priority Saskatchewan would work to identify suppliers in this area that could provide goods and services to the winning bidder. Once a bid process is done, the agency will also have a debriefing with unsuccessful businesses to address how to improve their bids for the future.

The problem, then, becomes communicating to local businesses the services that are available to them through Priority Saskatchewan.

Part of that will be done through ongoing conversations with industry groups. But Wyant also committed to keep travelling the province to speak with industry directly about the province’s initiatives.

“Coming out and speaking at events like this, at chambers across the province, gets that message out,” he said.

“One contractor will talk to the next contractor, somebody will make an inquiry and give us a call and we can get information out that way as well.”

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