IN DEPTH: CANADA 2020
Does Canada have courage and vision for the future?
Rudyard Griffiths | June 29, 2006
To encourage debate about the challenges Canada will face in the coming decades the Dominion Institute, in association with The Toronto Star, LaPresse and CBC News, has invited twenty leading thinkers to comment, over the next four months, on an issue or event that they think could transform the country by 2020.
Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute, introduces the Series.
Each day 1.3 billion Chinese wake up to confront a stark reality: China's blistering eight per cent annual economic growth is increasingly underwritten by foreign energy supplies, primarily oil. In Iran, Africa, South America and Canada's own tar sands, the Chinese are ruthlessly securing the energy supplies necessary to support an economy that is predicted to triple in size by the year 2020. Coping with the social upheaval caused by a roaring economy and ever mindful of their storied history of revolution, China's leadership knows that the future prosperity of the Middle Kingdom is inextricably linked with their pursuit of oil and gas.
It's not just energy-starved giants such as China and the United States that are trying to figure out what policies and priorities they have to put into place today to preserve their way of life over the long-term. On the other end of geopolitical scale, the likes of Ireland, Singapore and Finland are grappling with how to further the growth of their knowledge-based economies at a time when instant communication and new technologies are allowing developing nations to produce many of the same high-end products and services at a lower cost.
Through long-term investments in research, higher education, and increased productivity, developed nations who have neither a superabundance of natural resources or large populations are discovering new ways to compete in the global marketplace and improve the quality of life of their citizens.
All of these countries – large and small, East and West, developed and developing – possess what is called a "strategic culture". Whether they are faced with energy scarcity, regional instability, new technological paradigms, the threat of terrorism, or population growth, these nations are grappling with immediate threats to their future welfare. These "externalities" create in a country, such as, say, Finland a strategic culture that allows its leadership to cut through red-tape, sideline special interests, build consensus, and most important of all, forego short-term fixes to create policies that address long-term challenges.
Canada has been slow in developing its own strategic culture. For much the 20th century our geographic location and abundance of natural resources insulated us from the rest of the world. When major threats to our way of life did emerge we benefited from living beside the largest fire station in human history which we fought alongside in two World Wars, Korea and the Cold War.
In recent decades, two factors helped Canada create a home-grown strategic culture: a secessionist movement in Quebec and the challenge of sustaining a high standard of living with a small population in an era of globalization.
As debilitating as it seemed at the time, the threat of Quebec separation forced the county to confront its internal entropy and build the consensus necessary to patriate the Constitution (albeit imperfectly) and enshrine the Charter. Then, in the 1990s, in response to the pressures of globalization, Ottawa enacted painful but necessary long-term policies to reduce the federal debt and invest in education and research. Despite what was, at times, uninspired leadership and the near miss of the 1995 referendum, Canada benefited from having a series of well defined national goals (e.g. unity, fiscal responsibility and innovation).
Fast forward to today and our greatest challenge is increasingly the absence of any pressing issue(s) facing Canada. As the threat of Quebec separatism has receded and commodity prices soared, no pressing impetus exists to help Canada renew its strategic culture and get about the work of allocating scarce human and material resources to pursue well-defined "national" goals or projects.
Find a way for Quebec to sign the Constitution Act? Confront the systemic failure of regional income assistance programs? Provide free post secondary education to qualified high school graduates? Rationalize our immigration policies? Forget it. For a federal government awash in surpluses, it's easier to throw money at short-term fixes and sustain the status quo rather than build a stronger and more efficient federation. Case in point: less than a quarter of the spending in the last federal budget was on long-term investments (e.g. infrastructure, research and education) – the lowest ratio to total budget expenditures in over a decade.
Without a strategic culture born of shared challenges and equipped to advance common national goals, Canada risks becoming a shadow of its former self; a collection of disparate regions, interests and groups all bickering over the unearned spoils of a resource-based economy destined eventually to go bust.
Right now Canadians, unlike Chinese and Americans, and a host of other more powerful countries, have the material wealth and room to manoeuvre to renew a strategic vision for the country's future. Do we, for instance, want to be known as the first G8 nation to have a "green" economy? Should we extend our efforts in Afghanistan and become the world's leader in rebuilding failed states? Or, it is time to finally get serious about using our present-day prosperity to build a knowledge-based economy for when commodity prices go into a tailspin?
We need to anticipate now the issues that will shape our future – the raison d'etre of our Canada in 2020 initiative – and set about developing national priorities and goals to manage the challenges that lie ahead. Hard-won experience tells us that to tarry too long in the safe and comfortable present is a luxury we cannot long afford.
Rudyard Griffiths and the Dominion Institute are the chief organizers of Canada in 2020.
What do you think Canada will look like in the year 2020? Take part in the Canada in 2020 essay contest and compete for $2020 cash prize and the opportunity to be published in The Toronto Star. Visit www.twenty-twenty.ca