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Sep 21 2017

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Putting bold ideas into action

September 21, 2017 | By and

Building the nation beyond Canada 150

As the nation celebrated its 150th birthday this summer, Canadians naturally reflected on what the country has accomplished over the past century and a half.

Completing the Canadian Pacific Railway, establishing universal health care, creating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – these are just a few of the big milestones in Canada’s history that were touted and celebrated. Based on bold and transformational thinking, these achievements helped make Canada the great place that we live in today.

Despite the immense impact of bold ideas throughout Canada’s history, such transformative thinking has often been absent from Canadian society in recent decades. This is because bold thinking comes with challenges. It is politically risky to steer away from or abandon the status quo – which is why policymakers tend to reach for low-hanging fruit instead.

But there are some things that are worth the risk. Canada’s sesquicentennial offered a moment to not only reflect, but to imagine the country in which Canadians want to live, work and play in the decades ahead – and to think about how to get there.

In this spirit, the Mowat Centre asked Canadian thought leaders to share their bold policy ideas for Canada’s future in a series of pieces we published to mark Canada’s 150th birthday. These ideas covered a wide range of issues – from urban governance to international affairs, social policy to digital innovation, human rights to renewable energy.

Taken together, common themes emerged in Mowat’s Bold Ideas series. It painted a picture of a nation that has accomplished a great deal but can still do more to put people first, embrace a modern approach to governance and institutions, and take on a global leadership role.

But what will it take to get there?

Adopt more universal public services

In looking ahead to the future of Canada, it will be important to ensure that Canadians have access to critical services, regardless of their location, employment status or income levels. Dr. Danielle Martin, a noted Canadian physician and leading health policy professional, kicked off the Bold Ideas series with a call to action in maturing our Medicare system. Looking back, the creation of universal health care in 1968 had a transformative and enduring impact on our national identity. A universal pharmacare system, Martin argues, is the next logical step as Canada grows older.

But perhaps policymakers can help the nation go even further with greater universality in other services as well – such as post-secondary education and employment benefits. As Canada struggles to address issues like income inequality and the changing nature of work, a focus on universal coverage of key services would help build a new welfare state for the 21st century. As Maytree President Elizabeth McIsaac observed, economic and social rights – such as employment, standards of living, health and education – are fundamental human rights and, therefore, should be treated as such.

“The world is only growing in complexity and the challenges of tomorrow will require courage from policymakers.”

Rethink and modernize our institutions

Canada is a much different place today than it was 150 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Urbanization, rapid technological advancements and other major trends have prompted massive changes to the way our society operates. As a result, many of the institutions and governance structures Canada has developed over the past 150 years have become outdated and are not prepared to address today’s emerging issues. Therefore, Canadians must be willing to rethink institutions and update them in ways that are relevant and responsive. For instance, Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat pointed out that as cities grow in importance, municipal governments should be afforded more authority and autonomous decision-making powers to help them better address the most pressing challenges of tomorrow.

To make social, economic and environmental progress in the coming decades, Canada must modernize its existing institutions beyond piecemeal changes or fragmented efforts. This means potentially overhauling bureaucratic decision-making processes and transforming government service delivery. Indeed, to foster an innovative culture in government and become a nation that is responsive to rapid economic and societal change, Canadians must be open to upending the status quo and even starting from scratch when needed. This could perhaps come in the form of creating a Ministry of Failure in government departments or applying lessons from new and innovative start-ups to our public institutions.

Play a new role on the world stage

The current global landscape is highly uncertain as many nations have closed their borders and turned inward. At the same time, however, Canada’s most complex challenges continue to become more – not less – global in nature. The emergence of fast-moving technologies, shifting demographic trends and climate change are issues that cross borders and demand international cooperation. Therefore, it is time for Canada to reconsider the role it should play on the world stage.

As a nation with enduring strength in collaboration and openness, it might be time for Canada to engage in a greater leadership role in global affairs, as suggested by Former Clerk of the Privy Council Mel Cappe. Canada could also take steps to engage and deepen ties with international allies, like the European Union, in non-traditional ways.

The world is only growing in complexity and the challenges of tomorrow will require courage from policymakers. As the dust settles on this summer’s Canada 150 celebrations, Canadians should prepare to take bold strides in the decades ahead to build the best Canada that we can – a place where people are treated fairly, where institutions are efficient and responsive, and where Canadians can continue to flourish at home and abroad.

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