The Viceregal Lion
  1. The Governor General of Canada
  2. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette
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Opening Keynote Address at the 2014 Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) Conference

Ottawa, Ontario, Thursday, November 20, 2014


Thank you for your warm welcome. I am so pleased to be here with you this morning.

I am of course a strong believer in the importance of international education.

As a student, I had the good fortune of spending several wonderful years studying abroad in the United States and the United Kingdom. Those experiences of living and learning in another country have served me well, as have the experiences of my five daughters—all five of whom began exchanges at age 12.

They are proud Canadians, but they are also citizens of the world. These experiences have helped them become more tolerant and respectful of diversity and difference, and better critical thinkers in the best sense.

For almost half-a-century, the Canadian Bureau for International Education has been supporting this kind of learning across borders, and today the importance of international learning is only growing.

Let me therefore take this opportunity to thank CBIE and all of you for what you do.

You more than most have realized, in our increasingly complex and globalized world, that the well-being of nations is being defined by how well we develop, advance and share knowledge across disciplines and borders. This is the diplomacy of knowledge.

And you more than most have realized that when we do this well:

  • By mixing expertise, creativity, collaboration and communication;
  • By linking learning and innovation with knowledge at all levels;
  • And by helping us all understand that learning together is, in the end, key to living together, then our communities, our country and whole world are enlightened, our economies and societies are constantly renewed, and we improve the human condition.

Karen McBride, the talented and dedicated president and CEO of CBIE, is a leader in the diplomacy of knowledge. She has been a member of the Canadian delegation on a number of our State and official visits abroad—including our most recent trip to Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Her support has been invaluable. It is so critical that we engage at the international level in our learning and innovation.

When looking for new ideas and insights, the best minds have always looked outward, to others in their communities, to their countries and across international borders.

Our visit to Poland, for example, included a meeting at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, which is where Nicolaus Copernicus studied for several years prior to the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, or ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,’ in 1543.

What remains so instructive today is that the “Copernican Revolution” was very much a revolution across borders, an example of the diplomacy of knowledge in action. The revolution Copernicus inspired was not complete until his ideas had been tested, refined and improved by a succession of scientists including Tycho Brahe in Denmark, Johannes Kepler in Germany, Galileo Galilei in Italy and, finally, Sir Isaac Newton in England. And Copernicus himself learned a great deal from the criticisms of the Ptolemic model of the universe by the Arabic thinker Averroes, who lived in Córdoba, in present-day Spain.

Today, globalization, the Internet revolution and the vastly increased complexity and cost of research and learning means that the benefits of working and studying across borders are even more pronounced.

To share a very contemporary example of this from Europe, my visit to Belgium included a fascinating stop at the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre, or IMEC, a world-leading researcher in nanotechnology and photovoltaics. IMEC, which is hosting a number of leading Canadian researchers, is headquartered at the University of Leuven in Belgium and has offices in the Netherlands, Taiwan, the United States, China, India and Japan.

This state-of-the-art centre is achieving some impressive results, particularly in the realm of health technology. We can draw some useful lessons from IMEC’s approach, which is to collaborate widely and internationally with experts who, upon arrival, work together with remarkable dedication on the research matter at hand.

The approach is also highly interdisciplinary, bringing great and varied minds together in common cause. Also, the research objectives are strongly aligned with community interests and betterment—the goal is to create not just smarter, but more caring and compassionate communities. And finally, IMEC serves as an incubator of small businesses and initiatives, providing invaluable resources and support at the critical early stage of research and development.

I am inspired by such stories of collaboration and learning, so let me say again how delighted I am to note CBIE’s leadership in practicing this kind of diplomacy of knowledge.

Now, I would like to talk about two factors in particular that have been a characteristic of leading educators and innovators everywhere I have gone in Canada and abroad: ambition and the desire for excellence.

Let me state two major reasons why ambition and the desire for excellence are both so important to our learning today.

The first reason is simply that, with all the pressing challenges facing our world, we must aim high and support students and researchers who aim to tackle the biggest and most significant among them.

And if we’re going to aim high in our choice of subject matter, let’s also aim high in our expectations. Let’s aim for excellence. Let’s be global leaders at every step of the way.

Second, ambition and excellence are important because nothing attracts talent and resources like great success. In a globally competitive environment, a track record of ambition and achievement goes a long way towards creating future successes. It is a classic example of a virtuous circle.

In today’s globally competitive environment, it is not enough to aspire to be “good.” Canada is fortunate to have some genuine strengths when it comes to education. However, as a society we are dangerously complacent when it comes to learning, including at the international level, which is why it so important that we show leadership in aspiring for excellence.

What do I mean by complacency, you ask? Let me illustrate the best way I know how: with a story.

The story takes place a few years ago, before I became governor general, when something remarkable happened in high school education in Ontario. After a prolonged and concerted effort working with students, parents, teachers and administrators, the province succeeded in raising the high school graduation rate from 68 per cent to 81 per cent, in the space of just six years.

Stop and think for a moment about what that means in terms of human potential.

Today, there are tens of thousands more Ontarians who have a high school diploma than otherwise would have, thanks to that 13 per cent jump in the graduation rate. Think of how much better their chances are today—or, if you prefer, how much dimmer their prospects would be without a diploma—thanks to that broadly shared commitment to changing and improving our classrooms and schools.

Think of what that means to our society as a whole. Think of what that means to Canada’s position in the world.

When these numbers were released, I was delighted and inspired. And I looked for the headline newspaper stories. Alas, 3 of the 4 Toronto-based daily newspapers ignored the story. The fourth buried it in a few paragraphs on page 8. So what did I do? I wrote an op-ed piece and submitted it in turn to two of the newspapers.

But the article was rejected by both—deemed “not newsworthy.”

Now, let me be clear. I understand the publishing and financial pressures that newspapers and other media face. I also have great respect for the journalism profession, which is an essential component of a democratic society.

I share this story with you not to take aim at the media but rather to suggest that the mentality that deems a 13 percentage jump in the high school graduation rate in 6 years “not newsworthy” is the product not just of a single profession, but of a whole society that is in danger of becoming complacent about the critical importance of a high school education.

To be sure, we know that a high school education is no longer the automatic end of our formal learning, but rather is often one stage on the way to college or university and lifelong learning.

But it does not follow that a high school education is any less precious today than it has ever been. It is the foundation upon which we build a skilled and educated workforce.

An attitude that supports and celebrates learning at every stage—from early childhood care to elementary school, secondary school and through post-secondary and graduate education—is what will make Canada a world leader in learning.

We need to have that attitude at every level of our education, and we need to celebrate our success. Doing so will demonstrate to the world that Canada is a society that values learning, that is ambitious in its desire for excellence and that wishes to practice the diplomacy of knowledge with other nations and peoples.

And it is up to us as leaders in education to send and reinforce that message to Canadians and to students and educators around the world.

Let excellence in learning be our message to the world, for the sake of our common future.

I wish you the very best with your important work. 

Thank you.