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McGill Institute for the Study of Canada’s 2011 Conference

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McGill Institute for the Study of Canada’s 2011 Conference,
Canada and the United States: Conversations & Relations

Montréal, Thursday, March 24, 2011

When I was asked to give the opening address at this conference today, and to answer a few questions afterwards, I accepted without hesitation—and for several reasons.

For one, I am delighted to be back at the Institute for the Study of Canada, among so many friends and former colleagues. It was my privilege—during my time as principal of McGill—to have played a role in establishing this institute in the mid-1990s. The aim was, and remains, to study and stimulate understanding on the past, present and future of this great country, Canada, and in so doing, to make it better.

As subjects go, it is an ambitious one. Lord Tweedsmuir, one of my predecessors, remarked on this when he was appointed in 1935.

“Canada,” he said, “is a biggish job.”

Let me take this opportunity to applaud the students, faculty and supporters of the Institute for their wonderful work in advancing our understanding of Canada and of our place in the world.

Now, to the theme of my speech today—Canada’s position as a global leader in learning and innovation. It is also a biggish topic, and another reason why I am glad to be here today.

Since my installation as governor general, I have spoken of a smart and caring nation. I have been drawing insight from the discoveries of Samuel de Champlain, the great explorer who mapped six present-day provinces and five American states. He was also the first governor of what we now call Canada.

Champlain is greatly misunderstood. He has been portrayed in the history books as a hero of French Canada, as a conquistador and an empire builder.

But as Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Fisher points out in his recent book Champlain’s Dream, Champlain was a true dreamer who envisioned a new order in a new world. Having seen the violent religious wars and upheavals of 16th century Europe, Champlain dedicated his life to building a society based on the rule of law, diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness and peace.

These were the necessary preconditions to the discoveries and pioneering settlements—the innovations, if you will—of the new world. To give just one example, respect for justice and the rule of law gave Champlain the legitimacy to lead in conditions of extreme hardship and instability.  Where earlier settlements failed, the fledgling colony of New France endured, thanks in part to the basic civil order—the smartness—established by Champlain.

It was also a caring society. Early settlers fully understood the extent of their dependence upon one another; Champlain himself said that the settlement at Port Royal would not have survived its first winter in 1605 were it not for the generous help of the local First Nations. In time, wave upon wave of immigrants would arrive, making a living from and settling the land in the hopes of a better life for their children.

The result: Canada, a bold experiment in peace, tolerance and inclusiveness that continues to this day.

I believe Champlain’s vision is even more relevant today than it was 400 years ago.

Canadians have long been leaders in shaping and responding to new global realities. Think of railway building in the 19th century, or the introduction of new communications technologies in the 20th century. These developments, which helped to knit our country together, grew from the interplay of creativity, collaboration and stability made possible by good governance and respect for the rule of law.

The Internet—which took less than a decade to reach more than halfway around the world—is the latest communications revolution to reshape the global context in which we live.

In 2017, Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday, and since my installation I have been inviting Canadians to think about ways to build a smarter, more caring nation as our birthday event. The society we dream of will measure itself by how well it develops the talents of Canadians and how it uses knowledge to improve the human condition, at home and around the world.

So what does that mean for this remarkable Institute in this precious university, in this place, at this time?

First, I invite this Institute and the participants here to help crystallize our vision for 2017. What are the goals and mechanisms by which we can continue to serve as a model of peace, tolerance and inclusiveness for the entire world? How can we ensure a stable foundation from which to learn and innovate? And what are the challenges to Champlain’s formula in the 21st century?

Second, I wanted to speak about our vision at this conference focused on Canada/U.S. relations because, in a global society, the well-being of one nation depends upon that of all others. We have much in common, and much to learn from one another. I wager there has been no more beneficial relationship between two nations in history—at least from the Canadian viewpoint.

Let me give only one quick personal example. Canadians have gained a great deal from the dynamic culture of learning and innovation in the United States. I myself am an example of a Canadian who has crossed borders in education, having spent four wonderful years as a student at Harvard, as did my only brother for four great years at Dartmouth. And several of my daughters—who between them have four degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth—have benefitted enormously from American excellence in post-secondary education. Many Canadian families can tell a similar story.

In Canada, we have worked extraordinarily hard throughout our history to ensure equal opportunity for all. Canadian students have universal access to primary and secondary education, and are able to learn in two official languages. Our public school system, which is envied by many around the world, is the foundation of our smart and caring society; we must recognize this, just as we must cherish our teachers, who have taken it upon themselves to inspire, encourage and challenge us.

Our challenge is to have equality of opportunity and excellence too—to see these two objectives as mutually reinforcing and not mutually exclusive.

On equality of opportunity, one 2017 goal might be to raise our high school graduation rate to 90%. Finland’s is above 95%. Ontario has raised its rate from 68 to 81% in the last five years through a creative, respectful partnership with its teachers.

On excellence, can we raise our aspirations to the highest level by funding MacArthur-type genius awards in Canada? Can we raise the number of Canadian Nobel Prize winners for work done in Canada to the top 5 in the world? Can we place 5% of our universities in the global top 50, and another 5 in the next 50 of international rankings? The latest Times ranking has 3 of our universities in the first 33, and one more in the next 50.

In a globalized world, the strength of our ideas and the pace of our innovation will determine our quality of life.

As in Champlain’s time, our success will rest upon our respect for law, legitimacy and pluralism, as well as our ability to collaborate. History reminds us of the importance of partnerships, of developing clusters of excellence for the betterment of society.

I want to illustrate the importance of collaboration with a little story from CAE in Montreal.

Now let me end with the theme of collaboration between nations—namely, our two.

I often draw on Jefferson’s image of a burning candle when illustrating the importance of sharing our knowledge and experiences. In fact, I have crafted this image, along with that of books, which represent learning, into my new coat of arms. The candle symbolizes not only enlightenment, but also the transmission of learning from one person to another, and from one country to another. The sharing of knowledge collectively enlightens our societies and our world. And when you light your unlit candle from my lit candle, my light is not diminished, it is enhanced.

The value of knowledge also depends on its use. How can we be smarter in our caring? Canada can be a global knowledge leader—a smart nation—but our efforts need to be directed towards helping people, including the disaffected and marginalized. That is where the “caring” comes in.

With this in mind, I want to challenge you to help shape our vision for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, and to strive for a smarter, more caring Canada.

Let me close with the words of a great friend, McGill legal scholar and poet F.R. Scott, who urged us to act as citizens of the world and to live in a country of the mind.

And let us also recall George Bernard Shaw’s couplet, which is so apt to my remarks today:

“Some people see things as they are and wonder, ‘Why?’. We dream of things that ought to be and ask, ‘Why not?’.”