Building a More Prosperous and Just Canada

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

by Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director

Photo courtesy of Ian Muttoo on Flickr

Who are we? Where are we going? How should we get there? How will we transform along the way?  These are the existential questions that continue to preoccupy much of the inquiry done by social scientists, humanists and artists around the world. These were also the key questions for about 200 participants at the 150! Canada Conference at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on March 11-12th.  This gathering was the first big public meeting to begin planning the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.  The stimulating discussions among artists, business leaders, social innovators, academics, public servants and youth clearly demonstrated that 2017 must be more than a big patriotic party: 2017 is an opportunity for renewal, reconciliation, inclusion and celebration of our diversity as a means to represent and to achieve a more just society.

1967 was an important year for Canada.  As described by Helen Davis in the only scholarly work about the Centennial Year, The Politics of Participation, this coming of age contributed to the breaking down of barriers, to the forging of new definitions of who we are, which led to a rights revolution that culminated with the Charter, and to the creation and strengthening institutions and programs, which expanded the space for telling our stories to ourselves and to the world. In the process, we became a more inclusive and more global nation. In Davis’ understated style, “the soul of Canada grew a little.”

However, Canadians face major challenges. The social and cultural reality for many Canadians is one of poverty, uncertainty and fear. Our elderly, our young, our native population and new Canadians all have pressing needs that we cannot forget. Our prosperity is at risk with too little innovation and too much self congratulation: in the words on one participant, Canada could become “fat, dumb and happy” and miss the transformation to the economy of the future.

2017 gives Canadians the opportunity to tackle these challenges and, once again, to redefine ourselves as a nation and to live up to our values. The consensus of the 2-day discussions was that the country as a whole must drive the discussion of what 2017 should be about.

According to an Environics poll released at the conference, the most popular idea for a 2017 legacy was a new scholarship program (51%), followed by new improved infrastructure, notably public transit (34%).

Two comments moved participants to tears.  Danny Graham, speaking on the importance of authenticity, finished his talk by reading the poem he wished that he had read when he became leader of the Liberal Party in Nova Scotia. Peter Dinsdale spoke on the ethical urgency of restoring collaborative relationships with First Nations and stated that Canada cannot fulfill its potential as a great nation if it fails to do so. This is a recurring theme in John Raston Saul’s A Fair Nation, but Dinsdale, the Executive Director of the National Association of Friendship Centres, was able to make the same argument in a few minutes with a generosity in spirit and humanity, which was truly moving.

A report of the proceedings will be submitted to the Federal Government. An Act of Parliament is under preparation and a 150th Commission will probably be established in the coming 12 to 24 months. However, many of the participants will continue to stay in touch and to formulate ideas and proposals and to take action whenever possible in shaping this new Canada.

The social sciences and humanity community has much to contribute to these efforts of memory, inclusion and social innovation. Several researchers and artists were active participants at this conference. As a community, we need to become even more “plugged in” and relevant. The Federation Secretariat will provide its members with opportunities and information to do so.

On a personal note, this is my first blog as Executive Director of the Federation. I intend to support the Board and the membership in bringing research into public life and public policy. Do not hesitate to contact me with your suggestions and ideas on how the Federation can effectively contribute to the public good.



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