Towards A 21st Century Canada (May 2010)

The ability to recognize the historical transformation Canadians are traversing and to rethink the reason for Canada in the 21st century is the critical precondition to creating a stable, sustainable 21st century economy.

We have transformed into the most cosmopolitan and diverse society in human history. More and more Canadians are now global citizens, exploring the world or staying connected to their countries of origin more closely than ever before. The kinds of things shaping our perceptions of the world and our future are not controlled or even influenced by governments. Far more important is the technology we hold in our hands and our connections around the globe. New debates over our individual and collective responsibilities now trump old debates over individual and collective rights.

Institutions designed for another age now struggle to stay alive, something that is particularly evident in our dysfunctional national politics. Very little is debated in Parliament these days that is relevant to the concerns of the majority of ordinary Canadians. People are not looking to national government to add to their pursuit of happiness.

The vehicles for public participation have irrevocably moved from political organizations, service organizations, and churches to the internet. This was the lesson of the Obama presidential campaign. Providing the grassroots with a genuine sense of connection and direct influence through social media enhances confidence in government and public action.

But the really difficult question is: what will it mean to be Canadian in a 21st century dominated by an Asian renaissance and a shift of economic dynamism and innovation to emerging markets? How do we forge a shared national purpose among people who have never shared anything before and who come from every corner of the globe?

Canada has no founding mythology like our neighbours to the south – no shining city on the hill. We are simply a former British colony occupying an enormous geographic space north of the 49th parallel. People can come, as they have, but people can also leave if the opportunities are brighter elsewhere.

As long as so much of our economy remains based on what comes out of the ground – oil, gas, potash, gold, other minerals, water – our economic future will be cloudy. Unless Canada can join the ranks of the “frugal innovators” like India and China; unless we can move away from being “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in a big way, our global stature will steadily decline.

A recent advertisement says “GM is back!” But back to what? Declining manufacturing industries cannot be Canada’s future, any more than our natural resources can. Our future must be, as Chris Anderson says in Wired, the “guys with laptops,” sparking innovation and linked around the world, building “global supply chains… scale-free, able to serve the small as well as the large, the garage inventor and Sony.”

To succeed in the global economy and provide meaningful jobs, equality of opportunity, and adequate income to all Canadians now requires the Canadian economy to restructure around industries based on innovative technological advances, and around the expansion of the vibrant service sectors in our urban centres.

Our biggest challenge during this transition is the training and education deficit. This is the result of years of underfunding and lack of direction on the part of both governments and employers. We must commit ourselves to nothing less than giving every Canadian the opportunity for the best education and training possible to assure meaningful work and ongoing employment in 21st century industries.

Establishing this fundamental education foundation requires significant new investments at all levels – from early childhood education to a wide range of post-secondary education. Since virtually all the meaningful jobs of the future will require at least a couple of years of community college, two years of college attendance should be publicly funded and delivered free of charge, as we do with elementary and secondary school education. As we have seen in some U.S. states, the easy availability of ongoing community college training for employees has, among other things, proven to be a significant attraction for companies on the leading edge of technological change.

Substantial financing is equally needed for basic scientific research that will foster free-ranging scientific innovation. This will spur everything from medical breakthroughs on cancer and the environmental causes of ill health, to new discoveries leading to greater energy efficiency and waste reduction, to effective action to protect Canadians by eliminating the dangerous toxins in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

The recent collapse of Nortel put an end to the biggest corporate spender on research and development in the country, and exposed the shallowness of our advanced technology sector, leaving only Research in Motion as a world-class Canadian success story. There has never been a more urgent time for public investment to play a central role in strengthening our capacity to innovate and lead in technological developments.

Canadians need serious thinking about the future. If we can take advantage of the many opportunities open to us today and continue to build an open, progressive society that respects rights and responsibilities, our voice can once again carry significant weight in the global community.