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

Synthesis: Pathways to a Canadian future

Therese Paquet-Sevigny, Professor, University of Quebec at Montreal, Secretary-General, ORBICOM, Network of UNESCO chairs of communications

I would like to start with [a quote] from Oscar Wilde: the truth is never pure and seldom simple.

I am grateful to the Couchiching Institute and its board for inviting me here to share my fears and hopes, while attempting to reflect some of yours.

In these few days, we had this tremendous advantage to listen to very well informed specialists and to discuss globalization in very abstract terms, with very broad concepts of references. It is a retreat worth taking.

Many speakers and participants did position Canada in this global context. Except for a few guests and our guests this morning, Canada appeared as a global community.

To-day, I feel my task almost impossible. I would like to rephrase our topic and question the character of this Canada we are talking about . Because, except for Mr. Blanchard, Mr. Courchene, Mr. Owram and our guests of this morning, in my view, there was not much intellectual flexibility in the global Canada presented to us.

But, Globalization can also be a very personal and individual endeavour and only if citizens become part of the process can Canada become, in my view, a living reality and an influential actor of this new century as it is proposed to us.

With its geography, its cultural diversity, its regional disparities, the Canada of tomorrow can hardly be discussed as an homogeneous entity. And I think that after this morning we can all be convinced of that.

This call for the contribution of all Canadians to the building of a more competitive, more educated, more flexible work force needs to be felt by each Canadian as a personal invitation. So that an individual commitment can be made.

In that sense, the Couchiching Institute is a unique opportunity to revisit our feeling of belonging to this country which tries to get ready for another century.

By the same occasion, one cannot negate that only real people, with real life experiences, can make it happen for Canada. I am sure that each participant in this two-day conference went back to his or her own personal journey into the country.

From my own personal experience, I would like to bring to a few lessons I learned when I was very young from my own father, who was a very simple man who just completed his secondary degree, working as a clerk at Domtar in the Eastern Townships and an avid shortwave radio listener.

I was the eldest of a family of three girls. In those days, most households had some family members living in the [United} States, and aunts or uncles of Irish, British or Scottish origin. When I was 10 years old, my father let me choose between Bishop’s College and a convent of nuns, who mostly came from France.

I chose the convent. I soon discovered, and so did my parents, that the nuns were better adjusted to the secular society of France than to the religious environment in the Quebec of the 1940s.

At the time, it was 1944, my father taught me my first lesson on Canadian citizenship.

He said, "we live in a free country where nobody can force you to do anything. You can go to any church or temple you want. You can even stay at home. But I would prefer to see you choose a quiet place where you can meditate for one hour every week."

I learned the second lesson a year later. I was 11. It had to do with Eastern Europe and Asia. My father advised me to be concerned, but not too distracted by what was going on in Europe. "Focus on Asia," he said. "Canada has plenty of space and water, but a very small population."

He explained the Malthusian theory of population to me; why personal mobility was a problem, and why the fertility rate had to go down. He believed that there was both strength and fragility interwoven in the fabric of our country.

I learned my third lesson when I was 12, but I should not tell it you because I did not follow his advice.

He didn’t believe very much in women who got married before 40. In his view, if a woman was not totally independent, psychologically, intellectually and financially she should not get married. Otherwise she would remain pregnant all her life and she would always be at the service of a man.

My mother would just smile back at him because, in fact, he was doing half of the housework.

But what he told me at that time when I was 12, he said: "we live in Canada. You have to make up your own mind at a very young age. There’s no need to submit yourself to a teacher, a boss or anybody else."

Of course, his words of wisdom did not stop me from boy watching!

Studying and working in a variety of environments in different parts of Canada, France and the U.S. from 1952 to 1980, with private media and with private enterprises, made me very sensitive as a Canadian citizen from the province of Quebec to the multiple facets of the country.

It’s only after 1980, when I joined the CBC, that I felt how good the impression people from other countries had about Canada and Canadians. So we must be something. If we don’t know who we are, others see it.

In fact, Canada seemed the dream country to them.

Of course, the CBC used to be synonymous with Canada. Unfortunately, big business and politicians decided that it was not good enough for them. They tore down an institution by cutting back the CBC to more than a third of its capacity.

We probably may need to rebuild it with a clearer mandate, instead of creating a mirror image of what others can clearly do better, because there are not enough venues left in this country where our authors and performers can be heard and seen.

What we saw this morning, we would have loved to have 10 million Canadians see it and hear it.

The CBC was also one of the few places in this country where Canadians intermingled freely. We have many people in Canada working in different provinces who had the experience of different provinces, but in fact inside of the CBC there was that other freedom of expression inside of the organization.

My experience at the UN also made me much more of a Canadian. My own department of Public information had 800 employees worldwide at the time. Half of them were spread across 67 countries, and the other half were located in New York and Geneva.

I quickly had to learn a hundred different perspectives on social cohesion, democracy, governance and world citizenship.

In the New York Department of Public Information, where I was assigned as an Under Secretary-General, there were 79 different ethnic groups for whom French or English was a third language. We had to work in harmony as much as possible.

Each week we had to produce 15 and 30 minute programs in 35 languages and we had to distribute it in 15,000 cassettes.

At [this] distance, Canada became a protected land in my mind — a sort of dreamland where people learn to work with others at a young age, and interact with many groups who do not necessarily share the same beliefs or opinions.

I definitely became more tolerant, although I did not become less demanding of our leaders.

What makes Canada attractive?

We heard a lot about that, but we have to remember what we have and why it is attractive for other countries. Yes, open spaces, natural resources well beyond our needs, a civil society that is reaching the age of maturity, stable government, prosperous business institutions, as well as growing cultural and linguistic diversity.

The high literacy rate and the long life expectancy, combined with a per capita income comparable to the big five industrialized nations in the world, and strong shared values ensure unparalleled peace of mind and freedom to the citizens of this country.

Canadians have traditionally been outstanding mediators and partners in the international arena. We are often recognized as leaders of avant-garde causes, such as land mine clearance in military zones, peacekeeping operations, the International Court of Justice, the rights of the child, status of women, and the list goes on.

Canadian men and women have a lot of influence, credibility and know-how, which give us tremendous added value in the eyes of the world.

With its humanist vision and rhetoric, as well as its functional approach to daily life, Canada is in a choice position both within and outside its borders. In fact, we’re very often, as you know, compared to the Nordic countries, Holland in Europe, and in the Asia rim to Australia and New Zealand.

Why then should we question Canada’s future?

A number of speakers have referred directly to that question.

We have to question the future for a number of reasons. I think we’re not alone. All countries in the Northern hemisphere are doing the same kind of exercise that we’re doing right now.

I’ve been in Europe in the past few years attending similar tables, discussing similar issues.

One has only to look at the results of the studies conducted over the past few years in the United States, Germany, France, and Spain. Everywhere you go. In Japan, they discuss the same issues.

I have focussed on aspects of these studies which are also covered in certain publications and reports prepared over the last two years by Canadians, including work by Charles Taylor, John Saul, the Maurice Strong group, and the group of senior civil servants in the federal government on human development and social cohesion.

Canada is caught between a united Europe, a U.S. giant, Asian tigers and China.

With only 2 per cent of the world’s population, Canada has a relatively low productivity rate; a 65-cent dollar, one of the lowest Rand D investment ratios in the world, aside from Italy; some of the highest tax rates in the world, an immigrant population which surpasses the national birth rate in numbers, growing poverty among women and children, as well as youth who are hard hit by unemployment and underemployment.

As we speak, more than one-third of Canada’s labour force is trapped in job insecurity, short-term employment or part-time work; a disproportionately high national debt to revenue ratio, and national wealth that is subject to the whims of external forces.

In short, Canada will need a reality check within the next few years. I am not saying the year 2012. I say in the next three to four years.

Let’s take a look at some of the paradoxes Canada is likely to face.

Canada will need to address these issues whether or not it remains a single entity and regardless of its many alliances.

The new economy launched in the 1970s definitely became a knowledge-based society in 1990, and it will continue to grow by leaps and bounds over the next 10 years. Many of the key economic sectors in our daily lives will continue to change, including education, health care, the environment, technical and professional training, communications, finance, and so on.

Canada is already a participant in the new economy. Over 50 per cent of Canada’s revenue and jobs are derived from the information and communications sectors, which are the foundation of a knowledge-based society. The U.S. is at 56 per cent right now.

What about the next few years? And what will be Canada?

First of all, Canada’s relative position in the world will once again have been diminished, since the developed countries of today will only represent about 12 per cent of the world’s population.

New players in the international arena, such as Brazil and China, will bump Canada from the G-8.

Furthermore, with other countries from the South, they will ensure that the Canadian economy is no longer among the top 15 economies in the world.

The United States, Canada’s largest financial partner and neighbour, will attempt to maintain its economic position somewhere between 20 and 24 per cent of the world’s wealth by forging, or forcing, new commercial alliances with a large number of new players in the Southern hemisphere.

Again, think of the U.S. They were at 43 per cent of the world’s wealth just 10 years ago, 12 years ago. But , as they said, very often in front of many intellectuals in the U.S...we prefer to be many rich people at the table than to eat alone.

The questions we need to address are of a diverse nature. Each of the questions is based on tensions which, in my opinion, are only increasing and over which there is little public debate. These questions will all have an impact on knowledge producers and on knowledge brokers, the political elite and the institutions in our own society.

In fact, each of these questions raises the issue of new democratic practices. And regardless of what happens to Canada in the future — either in the West, in Quebec or in the Maritimes — these are questions that will force people to take a stand and make commitments over time.

My first question: the competition is fierce for the creation, production, processing, use and distribution of knowledge. The fact is that only participating countries will remain in the international arena. Canada’s egalitarian democracy is the cornerstone of its international reputation and the foundation for the quality of life in this country. We’re known for that.

Can we still hope to maintain our unique character in the new global context?

When you look at some of the recommendations made in the Strong report on behalf of the IDRC and the North-South Institute, it is obvious that our international role is what concerns the elite and politicians the most. It suits their egos, their aspirations, their expectations and some kind of a vision that they have about what we should be doing.

Broad-based studies conducted across Canada in 1995 show that Canadian citizens only agree on one priority with the country’s elite, government and business leaders. The Canadian population — and it was 3,000 people around the country who were interviewed at the end of 1995.

The Canadian population wants freedom, a clean environment, a healthy population, integrity and individual rights.

The top five priorities of the elite are competitiveness, integrity — that’s the one which is common — minimal government, thriftiness, excellence.

Competitiveness is both a central and peripheral issue. It ranks first for the elite and 20th among Canadians in general.

Although competitiveness is supposedly a priority, we have all been witness to Canada’s sluggish approach to the competitive international arena.

In a knowledge-based society, we need more than technology. We need highly-skilled and focussed workers who show mobility and flexibility in the construction and transfer of knowledge. This requires ongoing learning in multicultural, multilingual and multinational negotiations.

We need popular consensus on economic sectors that are ready for international markets and exports. We have to make up our mind on what we should focus [on] and bring the priority: is it health, is it education, is it technology and knowledge?

This requires ongoing learning... We need popular consensus on economic factors and this does not necessarily mean exporting goods. We need to export services and skills at competitive prices.

In this context, are Canadians ready to work in multi-disciplinary and competitive environments? If so, are they prepared to change their traditional ways of learning and living? And can this be accomplished without creating broad-spectrum education programs?

Won’t it be a prerequisite to be fully fluent in more than one language? And what about computer literacy?

Fulfilling our international role poses a real challenge to our educational system, especially with regard to higher education.

Canadian strategic planning has finally shifted toward training highly- skilled workers — and it’s very recent — instead of low-income workers in a technical world.

For the first year ever, in 1997, the world registered higher production in content industries than in the equipment industry. I think we are close to about $800 billion.

Where does Canada wish to stand in what promises to be a tough race? As it stands right now in that category of industry, where there’s lots of knowledge brok[er]ing going on, the U.S. is at about 42 per cent of the total production and 92 per cent of the total production is in the hands of OECD, with largest the companies [in] Japan, Germany, France, U.S.

Second question: the corporatist approach has spread through the corridors of our political elite. Canada’s integration into the U.S. economy is nearly complete. That’s why some people are asking, when will we get the U.S. currency?

Deregulation now goes hand in hand with decentralization, and the role of the state has been severely diminished.

How can Canada maintain its fundamental nature, which is based on the sharing and redistribution of resources, as well as the social and physical security of its citizens?

In a word, how can we reconcile the priorities of the elite with those of citizens?

And, how can we combine our egalitarian traditions with a competitive future for Canada?

This question calls for a review of our basic values.

Canada has always taken pride in its social security programs and once-burgeoning middles class. Yet the quality of life in our middle class has been severely reduced in the last 15 years.

Canada can only regain strength if the population regains trust in the elite.

Politicians and employers need to listen to grievances about net income, health care and the quality of the educational system. Canada ranks 18th in math and 20th in sciences on an international scale published by The Economist this year.

We cannot be competitive without new investments in R&D and in human resources. Canada will not remain in the international arena for long if Canadians lose faith in their ability to stand comparison; if Canadians have no faith anymore in their own capacity to become knowledge brokers.

And I can’t help, as did many of our speakers, but comment on poverty among women. I do not know of one person in Quebec, or elsewhere in Canada who approves of the way our society remains silent. Mr. Gray mentioned this morning about how good we were in not listening and not seeing things. Well, that’s a case where I think some people need to stand up because women are very poor, children are very poor.

How can we live up to our reputation of tolerance and justice without recognizing some of the major changes our country has undergone in the past 20 years. Very little is left of the traditional family unit. The price of freedom for many adults equals more poverty for women and children.

The disparities between groups and the disappearance of the middle class herald the decline of our democracy. This is a dangerous place to be.

We need to stand up and debate. We need to decide about our future, create new social bonds that focus on good governance.

The third question: Canada is a welcoming land where 68 per cent of the population is either English or French origin. Millions of new Canadians who are already here, or who have not yet arrived, will choose one language or the other, regardless of their country of origin.

The difference is that Canada promises equality of law in either English or French. With a higher concentration of Francophones in Quebec, how can Canada guarantee fundamental characteristics such as tolerance, equal rights and flexibility if it is perceived by a large proportion of one of the two founding people as inflexible, exclusive and unwelcoming toward one of the two linguistic groups?

How can Canada survive without open negotiation on an equal basis with both groups? Canada is indivisible and belongs to us all.

Yet, are Canadians ready to uphold the decision of our Founding Fathers, or would they prefer a divided land?

This is a very painful question for many groups of Canadians. It deals again with our reputation of permissiveness and tolerance.

This is the biggest paradox of all for me. The fathers of the Federation built this country on the recognition of different groups of people living on a large piece of land. They knew the big differences existing between groups who wanted to maintain their own set of values. That is why the federation did not want to join the U.S.A. on one side and did not want to discard the diversity of the land, on the other.

To-day we have a country who rates first in the world for welcoming new citizens. We tell newcomers that this is a country of hopes and respect, that their rights and freedoms will be protected. We heard again this morning [that] Toronto alone will register next year a majority of its population categorized amongst the visible minorities.

Yet we are very careful not to tell them that we have problems with linguistic duality in this country and with guaranteeing equal linguistic rights to the founding communities. Newcomers inevitably must choose one of the two languages.

The fact remains that we have a few million people fighting for their language in a sea of 300 millions of English- speaking people. Quebec would not be a bigger issue than any other part of the country, if it were not a linguistic and de facto a cultural issue.

I would have liked to hear [Chief Phil] Fontaine [of the First Nations] talk about the future of his communities in Canada. We heard a little bit this morning and I was happy to listen to what was said.

A very high proportion of Canadian citizens still do not understand well all the intricacies of the rights of the indigenous people in Canada.

And what about [the] Western provinces ? A very high proportion of Canadian citizens in Quebec and in Ontario do not understand at all the arguments made in the West through the Reform party.

We need to clarify for which Canada stands the 21st century most of our speakers were talking about.

Canada is becoming increasingly diversified and fragmented in its making and its wide range of vested interests, with an ever-decreasing ability to manage and make the most of its diversity.

John Ralston Saul objects against some of our leaders who would prefer Canada to have, and I quote, "a manageable appearance of simplicity, with a single language, a single culture and a single or one dominant race."

Like millions of Canadians, Saul believes that ‘‘non conformity__ is not ‘‘ a simile for weakness."

We accept that elites do not want to be out of step with the international community, but we do not accept long an elite who is out of step with the rest of the country. I find some radical positions taken by some of our leaders a threat to our future.

My fourth question: as this millennium comes to a close, we need to make some tough choices.

We need to decide if we are going to be a knowledge-based society and rebuild the social bond among our citizens, regardless of the brilliance of its political leaders or the extent of its business alliances.

Can Canada succeed without investing heavily in the development of its human resources, in the development of a working place highly skilled in technologies?

This question deals with global issues. How do we rebuild a social bond that will give hope to new generations, without taking a step backward into paternalism and protectionism, without returning to deficit-spending mode?

How do we re-channel the energies invested in maturing into a civil society?

We need new mediation platforms in Canada dedicated to strengthening our shared values and knowledge because we have some. We simply can’t afford to be naive, as it was too often the case in the international community in the past.

Canadians are great at networking internationally, but fall short of the mark here at home.

Thousands of NGOs and NGIs are not even computer literate. They are unaware of Canadians in other regions with complementary knowledge and skills. They are simply not equipped technically. It would cost very little to invest in capacity building within Canada since Canada is already doing it for developing countries.

We should start here.

And I said it after the Knowledge 1997 conference in Toronto last year in front of External Affairs and all the other representatives from Industry Canada. It is unacceptable there’s not a blip across Canada for at least until they are 20 years old, but from three years old, in capacity building and in knowledge-broking systems.

We should also invest in translations, not only into French but into Spanish and other languages as well. A place like Couchiching, for instance, should be supported by Heritage Canada for some kind of translation. We don’t need simultaneous translation. Most of the Quebeckers who come here usually understand and most of the Anglophone who are here lots of them understand. We need just a bit of support so we’re not short of words when something happens.

I missed a few jokes this morning from the fantastic guy from Vancouver. I was feeling so miserable. So I asked my neighbour to explain.

There are very few places left in the country where one can express freely, so no one falls into the self exclusion trap. That’s the most dangerous trap for some Canadians.

To my mind a full Canadian citizen is a world citizen. and there is not one good economic or intellectual reason for any one Canadian to be left out in the cold.

In short, [the] Canada of the 21st century will be a challenging place in which to live.

We will still have a big land with too few people, and we will be left with the daunting task of managing internal tensions to meet competitive challenges.

And I don’t mind tensions. I think it’s good for Canada. And we’re in the cold, we can take the tension. In so doing, we need to remember the horizontal nature of our country, the symbolic line that crosses the land, west to east. It’s tenuous, at best, but it’s as real as it was a few hundred years ago.

Regardless of what happens to Canada, in the West and in the East, and in Ontario, if it had to stand alone as Canada, most of these questions and those debated in the last two days will need to be answered.

And no matter the answers, as in any other countries of the OECD and in most countries in transition, knowledge-building, creativity, innovation, competitiveness, tolerance, protection of rights, formation of new alliances, democracy, flexibility in the work place, will continue to be debated.

In the end, where does the truth lie?

There is no pure and simple truth. More importantly, as Taylor would argue, there is no single truth. It is the responsibility of all citizens to contribute something to a Canada we wish to keep.

Canadians alone, individually, and in their community have the power and the means to make it known loudly, if they do not want to let it go.

Now, this is a commitment to a new degree of mutual and ongoing negotiation within the new Canadian and global village.

Before leaving you, I want to leave you with [this thought]: the human being, likes the truth to the point that even when he likes something else, or loves something else, he’s convinced that that’s truth.