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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

Searching for a preferred Canadian scenario

Michael Adams, President, Environics Research Group Ltd.

What are these scenarios about? Why scenarios?

I think the reason we’re here tonight is that Patrick Boyer and Trevor Bartram had a sense that they saw something that was a bit like what you do, which is democratic engagement.

I come from the business of public opinion polling [and] try to have a sense of historical continuity, see this country — the best country in the world — how was it built?

Well, elite accommodation, brokerage politics, shy and deferential people. Send the boys to Ottawa; they scratch each other’s back and give us a great country; 1867, 1981-2, it works pretty well.

But, with Meech it didn’t quite work. Between Meech and Charlottetown we come up with another Constitutional change. Something just happened in that 10-year period.

We’d gone from being subjects to being citizens, because they gave us a chance to vote. It wasn’t written in the ‘82 Constitution. It just had been in the air. Somehow or other these people are evolving into the status of citizenship, but reluctantly.

What are you if you’re a citizen? Is it just voting every four years? That’s not enough. They’re very frustrated with that. I do studies of confidence in institutions. They’re in decline. And we see a lot of examples of people being dissatisfied with Parliamentary government, with the centralization of power in the office of [the] Prime Minister, etc.

As I sat on the precipice of the 1985 referendum in Quebec thinking, I’ve read Barbara Tuchman’s book, March of Folly, I thought: are we going to sleepwalk into a future none of us want? Is the best country in the world going to be around in the year 2015? And wondered, is another poll going to solve the problem? Probably not.

Can we just defer to the elite leadership, the Premiers and the Prime Minister to solve our problems for us? Should we do that, or maybe we ought to get involved.

It was at that point I’d heard about this scenario building exercise and thought this is kind of interesting.

What we’re going to do is we’re going to do in Canada what [people] have done in other countries, South Africa; they’ve tried it in the Middle East. They’re going to sit together and they’re going to say we’ve got something here and there’s some problems with it. Let’s get all [the] diverse interests in the country together.

Now we can’t get 30 million Canadians together, but we can get a random sample of 30 and let’s look systematically, analytically, passionately and dispassionately at what might happen if we just keep on doing what we’re doing. Let’s just think about it.

Where will we be? You don’t have to agree with one scenario. There are three or four things that just might happen if we keep on doing what we’re doing.

Think about South Africa before majority rule. Think about the Middle East. Think about Northern Ireland. We could just keep on sending our eldest son off to war to be another martyr and so on. Is this why we’re here? We don’t have a loss of life here, but we do have a loss of things that are important to us.

Canadians are great. They have a great sense of humour. They’re very cynical. And what it does is hide a tremendous sense of idealism.

You know, we define ourselves by, well, were not anybody else in the world, we’re just Canadians; we’re not Brits, were not French, we’re not Americans.

We define ourselves in the negative. We’re very ironic people. But I think deeply down we really care a lot about the country.

That’s why the project started [it] was to get another way of getting outside the box; to get outside the Parliament of government’s wrong, Opposition says there always wrong. There’s no dialogue, no exchange, no engagement.

And how do we do that?

So, we choose these 30 people. We come up with a methodology that systematically says we’re going to scan the entire environment, what are the factors that are important.

It started with the motivation of a guy thinking about politics and Constitutions and so on. We hardly ever talked about the Constitution. It rarely came up.

In fact, we started to talk about much more fundamental things, like the rich and the poor and the fact we might become a bifurcated society. How are we going to maintain the idealism, the tradition? How [are] we going to have that? How are we going to keep winning the number one quality of life forever in the world?

We talked a lot about technology, globalization. We got experts to come in and so on.

But the idea was to get us to think seriously, analytically, systematically about the future. Tell stories as powerful as the stories we tell our children; the great Grimm’s fairytales You tell them to your kids. They’re not true or false. They’re just powerful and they have an impact, a moral, a theme.

In fact, if you have stories about the future that are very negative, like we’re really going to lose stuff we really want, maybe by telling them and maybe by everybody agreeing that that’s what might happen it can be a self-negating prophecy.

And maybe the good stories, if we talk about them, we can say, yes, that’s what we all want and this other stuff isn’t really isn’t very important.

So, that was the process.

It was trying to get outside the box. In the end we came up with two dimensions we thought were really important in looking at the future.

These are 30 people, three or four days off away from their families at various conference centres and so on; three days at a session, five sessions. So, a lot of time, a lot reading between trying to analytically come up with where are we going in the northern half of the continent in the next 15 years.

And we came up with two major dimensions we thought were important.

Would this country — these people — adapt rapidly, or slowly, to the contextual change of what we call globalization, of commerce, culture, communications, technology, or would we adapt very slowly and would we resist?

The second was would our systems of governance — not just Parliament, not just federal-provincial meetings and so on — but the whole system of governance, how we govern ourselves as a people, the 30 million of us — would they adapt slowly, or would they adapt quickly — would there be a sharp break?

And so we took those two and made a cross and a box.

Then we found in each of those boxes — there were four of them — that logically and analytically four scenarios kind of spun out of that; about how quickly we adapt to socio-economic change and how quickly our governance systems adapt.

It became clear that when we came up with these names [to describe the scenarios]: Drift, Capsize, Shoot the Rapids and Portage, that we actually were talking about a canoe trip. It was a powerful metaphor for the Canadian; the original inhabitants used canoes, the early settlers used canoes.

The idea we’re in uncharted waters and so on seemed quite powerful. And what happened to the canoe going down the river. Did we all canoe in the same direction, or were people canoeing in different directions, did they fall off, did they hit rocks, did they portage and all that.

It seemed to work quite beautifully for a Canadian metaphor and scenarios.

So, we have four scenarios. Your going to disagree with some of these and you’re going to say, this is after a year; this is what they came up with?

The power of this is actually, was the integrity of the process. These were 30 real, smart, nice Canadians who weren’t intimidated by this. Nobody bribed them. They just worked through a process. They played the game and this is what they came up with

If 30 of you did it you might come up with four different scenarios. You might come up with the same ones.

But this is what we came up with.


The drift scenario is one where we don’t adapt to socio-economic change very rapidly, our governance systems don’t adapt very rapidly. We’re kind of in denial’ one problem at a time. A band-aid here and so on. It’s sort of the muddling through that we kind of think maybe is what got us here.

Or was it? Did we actually make some dramatic changes in the past and we don’t credit ourselves with them?

In this scenario muddling through isn’t good enough.

And we just keep putting stuff off and what happens is that our standard of living kind of declines; maybe not in absolute terms, but in relative terms.

The signposts are: year 2003 quality of life comes out from Switzerland. Canada drops to number five. Prime Minister says, margin of error here. My pollster tells me we could be number one, but it’s only a temporary aberration.

[In] 2010 another study comes out, quality of life. We’re number nine.

What it says is that muddling through, deferring to the elite leadership, deferring to the corporations — international or national ones and so on — and the rest of are just sort of trying to get by, keep our jobs and get that annual vacation to Florida and letting somebody else worry about it just doesn’t cut it any more.

The drift scenario is one that says we’re in relative decline.

You can call it the British disease; where were they are the turn of the century and where are they today?


The second scenario is capsize.

In this scenario we make a dramatic shift, whereby essentially we’ve got a lot of people who are dissatisfied.

Perhaps this is an extension of drift, where they’re dissatisfied, they’re upset with the way things are going and they’re so upset it could be that we actually start to do very well economically and, therefore, they think they’re free to be able to make some decisions, or we do so badly that it’s kind of a "what have you got to lose attitude," which we see in some areas of the country.

At any rate, some people start to take more radical action.

And the precipitating event of capsize and here’s where we get back on the Constitutional thing is that Quebec votes 51 per cent in some future scenario [and] the curly-haired guy doesn’t save us from the devil and we end up voting; they vote yes.

Of course, it’s 51 per cent; what does it mean? Of course, there’s a lot of minorities who don’t agree with it; things start to unravel. The Anglophones of Quebec say, not me; we’re going to have a vote in our county, get out of here, we’re going to sue the federal government to take care of us, the natives don’t accept it and so on.

And in this instance, the dollar declines even more than it is today. It’s at a par with Canadian Tire money. People we owe a lot of money to are not too amused; the IMF walks in.

I’m giving you an anecdotal version of what capsize is, but [in] capsize the canoe hits the rocks and it’s kind of nasty.

They kind of agree they don’t want to have violence, but there are some people in the underclass for whom this is a great chance for a party. If winning a Stanley Cup is, you can imagine that this would be a chance for some people to have a little party and it could be quite negative and violent.

This is a scenario where there’s a big risk. It doesn’t quite work out and it’s kind of a break up; it’s the Balkan scenario.


[The] shoot the rapids [scenario] is an interesting one, because here you’ve got us adapting to socio-economic change. The country do pretty well, the corporations doing well, most people doing well and so on.

This is the one in which we kind of get together and we think now, what about the country. What about the velvet divorce? What about kind of getting ready with the idea that if certain regions want to express their autonomy by doing it that they can do it and we negotiate it in advance. We get everybody set, all the minorities are happy and so on.

This is the one where Quebec votes yes, but it’s kind of, well, okay.

And the rest of Canada says maybe it’s an opportunity; it’s certainly not something we’re going to fight over. We’ll get the lawyers and the accountants in there to make sure they don’t pick our pockets, but basically let’s do this honourably and get on with it.

So, this is just a dramatic breakthrough. It’s, I guess, a scenario that some people want. But we thought, having thought it through, that is was a plausible scenario; that Canada could have a velvet divorce.


Finally, we have [another scenario] in which our governance systems adapt, our socio-economic systems adapt.

This is a scenario in which, over time, what we’re doing is kind of re-balancing the systems of government, trying to figure out what this level out to do, what the international level ought to do, what the provincial, the local, what citizens should do, what the third sector — the growing civil society should do — a growing role for civil society in Canada.

One of our members used to joke, this is the SDS version of Canada; the utopian version of Canada.

A very active role for civil society. This is more than just citizens, more than just governments doing something. This is [an] active role for intermediary organizations. Over time, redistributed governance and, essentially, one in which actually Constitutional votes and changes and so on seem kind of irrelevant, since the things that really matter to us can’t be won or lost by a vote on a referendum or changes the words in a Constitution.

Those are four scenarios. Thirty people working over a year, a year and a half. A pretty representative group; very serious group came up with these four stories.

So, what! They came up with four stories for the future of Canada. Are they meaningful?

What are the implications of this?

First of all, what we think the key messages are is that we have to adapt, you can’t just be in denial. We can’t put up walls or barriers, we have to adapt to the changes that are going on around us. How quickly and how effectively we adapt is very important for us.

We think another point is that just doing [things] the way we did it in the past may not be the safest strategy. In fact, that might be a risky strategy. The drift [scenario] actually could mean decline in absolute and relative terms.

Another point. A risk, a sharp break, a vote in Quebec, or something like that is a two-edged sword. There is much likelihood in such a move for us to really go down the toilet with the potential of violence, the underclass using that as a pretext of things really going badly, so that we all lose; the divorce from hell, the War of the Roses kind of scenario.

As much as there is that we will have to shoot the rapids and it will be all sweetness and light and we’ll all be gentlemen about the whole thing and gentle ladies.

Remember this was sovereigntists, federalists, the whole range of people. We all agreed that there was an equal probability a sharp break could be very bad or very good for Canadians.

And finally that there was an evolutionary road forward that we could take together. And it’s interesting that with each of these scenarios — it’s been about a year — you read the newspapers, magazines — it’s an interesting exercise to actually say, what am I seeing in the daily newspaper on the front page that might support drift, or that we’re headed to capsize, or shoot the rapids, or portage.

It’s an interesting exercise.

Where do we go from here? This was 30 people. It would take millennia for us to engage the entire Canadian nation.

We got no money from governments. This was entirely supported by individuals and people with no strings attached.

The use for these, of course, is for people like you to get engaged with them; to think about these scenarios, to reject them, to think of your own scenarios. What is a likely scenario? What is the preferred scenario?

We’re hoping to do this by going across the country with other groups — this is a wonderful group to be engaged with this process — across the country.

British Columbia is very keen on this; Alberta, Quebec. Many areas of the country are very keen to be engaged in such a process and then we must involve the wider public to get to have this sense of possibility.