Canada moving Forward: Making Progress Happen
The Honourable Michael D. Chong
President of the Queens Privy Council for Canada
Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs
Minister for Sport
Check against delivery
I would like to thank the conference organizers for inviting me to this impressive gathering. As a Minister of the Crown and as a citizen, it is an honour to be invited and to have this opportunity to speak about progress in the Canadian context.
I know that there is a large number of students at this years conference a sign, I expect, that organizers have picked a very relevant topic.
Grooming young minds for responsible citizenship is a noble pursuit certainly important to our progress. Im happy that Dr. Martha Rogers, Director of Education for the Upper Grand District School Board, has been able to join me today to hear this important discussion.
My co-panellists will each address key elements that define progress in the contemporary world:
- economic strength and the ability to compete;
- adaptability and openness to others in achieving success; and
- sustainable growth as a means to ensure opportunities for future generations.
We are engaged in a very important dialogue about the future of our nation and this is good.
Progress for Canada in the Twenty-First Century
By almost any account, Canada figures prominently as a country that has achieved both economic and social progress.
Today, Canadians enjoy the benefits of economic success: a stable and growing economy, low interest rates and low unemployment rates.
Indeed, Canada is viewed as an economic leader among G7 countries; it has the lowest net debt burden of all members of the G7 and, according to the OECD, it is the only G7 government that is expected to post surpluses in 2006 and 2007.
Socially, Canada has progressed a great deal since World War II. We created a public health care system, a pension system, and developed an approach to citizenship that respects diversity. As a country, we believe in reaching out around the globe to people in need of our assistance.
I could go on about our successes, but I dont need to because you can read it all in John Ibbitsons book, The Polite Revolution . In the first 12 pages or so, John chronicles our successes as a nation, and I wont try to repeat them. Suffice it to say that we have a lot to be proud of and I recommend that you all read Johns book or at least the first 12 pages for those details.
Perhaps it is because of what we have attained and achieved in our short history as a nation that the bar for what constitutes progress in the future is so high.
In my opinion, a very simple definition of progress is having a better society tomorrow than we have today. For a nation, it means leaving to our grandchildren a cleaner, safer and more prosperous country and hence a better quality of life than we inherited.
So where do we go with what we have today? What challenges does our nation face in moving from a prosperous today to an even more prosperous tomorrow?
Today, Id like to leave federal-provincial-territorial relations behind, leave sport to the athletes, and instead dwell on a Canadian fact that strikes me each time I make the trip from my farm in Fergus, through Toronto, to Ottawa. It is the fact and the challenge of our rapidly changing communities.
Growth and urbanization in Canada today
In many ways, the Canada we know today would be unrecognizable to previous generations. According to the 1921 census, only 49 percent of Canadians lived in urban areas. By comparison, the 2001 census tells us that 80 percent of Canadians now live in urban areas.
Rapid economic growth in urban centres is transforming our landscapes and our lifestyles.
My trips from Torontos Pearson Airport to my farm take me through a microcosm of this Canadian reality. I see the dynamism of Canadas largest city and the fast-paced growth of its suburbs. I see the hustle-and-bustle and the infrastructure that keeps the economic engine firing. I see the transformation of farming and rural communities, once part of Ontarios agricultural heartland, into expanding subdivisions.
And in thinking about the challenges and opportunities that all this poses, I am not alone.
Our changing communities and the accompanying challenges are increasingly the subject of op-ed pieces, journal articles, books, symposia and government reports. The issue permeates discussion of productivity, of the environment, of our health, of immigration policy, of our competitiveness, our quality of life, and our attractiveness for investors and big business.
Most people would agree that to make progress for the future, to build a better society, we need today to build our communities in a sustainable way:
- in a way that is environmentally sustainable;
- with economically sustainable infrastructure;
- and in a way that raises our productivity.
Let me elaborate on each of these, beginning with the environment.
We all know the inextricable relationship between the environment and the health of our communities.
Decades of research show that watershed regenerative areas, carbon sinks created by agricultural and wilderness areas, and a whole host of other natural processes that take place in non-urban areas are vital to clean air, clean water and clean habitat.
A key point in the debate around the environment is that neither the problems nor the solutions lie in Kyoto, but more fundamentally, in patterns of growth that create environmentally unsustainable consumption patterns. This means the problem and the solution lie much closer to home.
As citizens, we should encourage all our elected officials local, provincial and territorial, and federal to make the environment a top consideration in their planning and spending. I can tell you on behalf of the Government of Canada that we are taking this to heart.
Already, our government has made significant progress in introducing sound, effective measures aimed at enhancing the state of our environment:
- we announced a new transit tax credit to encourage public transit use;
- we introduced a new tax exemption for donations of ecologically sensitive land;
- we are developing new legislation to combat the smog that plagues our cities; and
- we are increasing the average renewable fuel content in gasoline and diesel fuels to 5 percent by 2010.
And this fall the Minister of the Environment will introduce the Governments new plan for the environment, which I think will pleasantly surprise.
But lets not forget our collective responsibility for our own individual actions. Sure, most of us recycle. Some of us may have taken further steps to green our lives. But we need to challenge ourselves to do even more, now. We need to look in our own backyards first, quite literally.
Ill move now to a point on the importance of economically sustainable infrastructure to our progress as a nation.
Governments at all levels face continuous pressure to prepare budgets that have infrastructure projects as a priority. Municipalities, for example, face the challenge of maintaining infrastructure spending while investing in the delivery of other essential services that maintain our quality of life.
The cost of maintaining roads, sewers, bridges, transit systems, harbours, water treatment plants and all the "hard" public infrastructure competes with spending on things like soccer pitches, school teachers, museums and community health initiatives.
To meet all these needs as they grow, municipalities can raise property taxes (but aim not to do so) or seek more funding from other orders of government. Provinces and territories and/or the Government of Canada must then decide whether to squeeze their own programs or raise taxes.
Regardless of who collects how much money from whom, there is only one tax base, and we all have to pay for the infrastructure.
The Government of Canada feels that it has an important role to play to ensure Canada has a solid infrastructure system to support trade and commerce. To emphasise this conviction, we announced a $16.5 billion investment in infrastructure over the next four years.
Moreover, our government has made a commitment to put federal funding on a predictable, long-term track and has made this issue part of the fiscal balance discussion with provinces and territories.
As citizens, though, its important to remember that there is a finite amount of money for this purpose which is why building economically sustainable infrastructure is so important.
Last weekend, architect Jack Diamond wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail you may have read it .
In a discussion about the economics of low-density developments, he referenced a study done in southwestern Ontario. It found that for every dollar received in real-estate tax, $1.40 was needed to provide services there. When we talk about a legacy for our grandchildren, surely we dont mean a legacy of institutionalized deficits.
Not building economically sustainable infrastructure will result in new needs, higher taxes or a lower quality of life. And none of these is good for productivity, for ingenuity, or for attracting business to our shores to generate new revenues that can pay for progress.
So Ive touched on the importance of environmentally and economically sustainable growth. Ill move to my final point now about the need to ensure that as they grow, our communities facilitate enhanced productivity so that we can finance progress in the future - so that Canadian families can continue to prosper.
To be able, in the future, to afford the services, amenities and security that we enjoy today, the value of our per-capita economic output must increase. To be competitive globally, investors and buyers need to be confident that Canada is a market that will grow their money for them.
Ill admit that productivity is a multi-faceted issue and it requires initiatives on so many levels. Its also an area of expertise for my colleagues, so I wont pretend personally to know the full answer. But there are a few critical things that the Government of Canada is already doing to strengthen the Canadian economy.
In recent years, the business community has raised concerns that government spending and taxing were limiting our economic progress. That is why our current government is focussing on reducing the growth in its spending and focussing on responsible program delivery.
We have also introduced tax relief for Canadian individuals and businesses. In our first budget we introduced more tax cuts for individuals than the past four federal budgets combined.
We continue to work on dismantling the barriers to mobility and trade within Canada, the barriers to employment for immigrants, and the barriers to efficient capital markets.
The Minister of Finance is exploring ways to further harmonize the tax systems in this country to reduce compliance costs for taxpayers and administration costs for business and governments.
As for human capital and competitiveness, we, like the rest of the developed world, have recognized that a skilled workforce is vital for a strong economy in Canada.
We need to do everything we can to support an education system that turns out well-trained, well-educated, adaptable workers. A good education is the key to a great future for our young Canadians, and we want to ensure we have a workforce ready to work hard and get ahead.
Our government sees the importance of Canadians pursuing post-secondary education, and in Budget 2006 we provided $370 million in new investments to foster accessibility and excellence at our colleges and universities.
Now, in the context of our changing communities, do we have an opportunity to enhance productivity?
Is it possible that there is something to the belief we have that population density increases productivity?
Could more densely populated areas put people closer to their workplace, reducing their commute time and increasing leisure time?
Could increased leisure time lead to a happier and healthier population?
Might happier, healthier people be more productive, more creative?
In short, could we move more quickly to save the environment, save on infrastructure, and enhance productivity all in one fell swoop by increasing the density of our new developments?
These questions come to me as I make my own commute, and I notice in the literature that others are making these links. Its another good discussion for another day perhaps
Now to wrap up all these thoughts:
I think it is clear that this Government has focussed on priorities that ensure Canadas families and businesses can get ahead. We are working on ensuring that new immigrants and young people can contribute to a strong workforce; we are ensuring that our infrastructure system is funded to maximize trade and commerce, and we have reduced taxes for all. As well, we are establishing a solid environmental plan for this country.
But let us remember that governments are not the only actors here. We as individuals are collectively responsible for the future of our communities.
It is key to remember that our individual decisions affect that future, that our individual decisions play out on a timeline that is much longer than, say, the terms of our present employment.
I realize that what earned me the invitation to talk to you today is my role as a Cabinet minister. But what brought me here was the opportunity to speak as a country dweller, a city lover, a father and a citizen, about a stark reality that has the potential to either propel our quality of life to new heights, or slowly unhinge our society as we know it.
So my main message about our cities, our environment, the costs of infrastructure and the growth of productivity my main message is that our individual actions are the constituent parts of progress. Whether we drive a smart car, vote, write an opinion piece or spend billions of dollars, we cannot extricate our actions from society as a whole. When we live this, we will make progress.
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