Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Conference

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Ottawa, Monday, November 3, 2014


Thank you for this invitation. I am so pleased to have the opportunity to be here and to speak with you today.

I would like to begin by addressing the important goal of this gathering: imagining Canada’s future.


What a worthy goal it is, and how appropriate, given that Canada has always been, first and foremost, an act of the imagination.

As you know, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, which together laid the groundwork for Confederation three years later. And I submit to you that those elected representatives known to us as the Fathers of Confederation were engaged, above all, in a collective act of imagining.

What was their bold, shared idea? It was Canada, a country where diverse peoples live and work together in a spirit of mutual respect, tolerance and co-operation.

The great Northrop Frye, whose writings and ideas will be well-known to many of you, once observed that each of us participates in society mainly through our imaginations.

This is particularly true in a country as vast and diverse as our own.

So let me take this opportunity to thank you for coming together to continue the work of building this wonderful country of ours.

I would like to do three things in my remarks today.

First, I want to speak to the two future challenge areas that have been identified as a focus of this gathering: emerging digital technologies and Aboriginal research.

Second, I would like to talk about the importance of fostering connections between academic institutions and the communities in which they operate.

And lastly, I will keep my remarks short so you can get on with your important discussions. As my grandmother used to say: Stand up to be seen, speak up to be heard, and sit down to be appreciated!

To begin: there is no doubt that we are living through a period of highly disruptive technological innovation. Simply put, digital communications and the Internet are transforming our world.

Sometimes, it is difficult for us to fully grasp the implications of the revolution we are living in the midst of.

Let me try and illustrate the best way I know how: with a story.

You’ve all heard of Henry Ford.

When Ford first introduced the Model T a century ago, he sold fewer than 1 000 cars per year. At that time, people often likened the new invention of the automobile to a “horseless carriage”—that is, the first car was described by what it was not, rather than what it was.

People in the early 20th century did this for the simple reason that they had never seen a car before, but they had seen plenty of horses and carriages. The concept of the “horseless carriage” was therefore easier to grasp than the new technological reality—the automobile, a carriage that moves itself—let alone the implications it had for changing our lives and world forever.

Within a decade, Ford was selling a million cars a year. By then, of course, everyone knew what an automobile was. 

In an article for the Brookings Institution, Peter Singer relates the story of the “horseless carriage” to what he calls “the robotics revolution” currently underway. Robotics, he says, is one of those rare technologies that “changes the rules of the game,” like fire, the printing press, gunpowder, the steam engine, the computer and so on.

His truly important point is this:

“The key to what makes a revolutionary technology is not merely its new capabilities, but its questions. Truly revolutionary technologies force us to ask new questions about what is possible that wasn’t possible a generation before. But they also force us to relook at what is proper. They raise issues of right and wrong that we didn’t have to wrestle with before.”

With the advent of the automobile, the questions were numerous:

What side of the road do we drive on? What are the rules, speed limits and safety features? Who will build our automobiles and roads and under what conditions? From where and how do we obtain oil for fuel? How does it change our assumptions and expectations?

None of these questions would have made much sense prior to the Model T, but in the Age of the Automobile they quickly became essential for our safety and well-being.

My point is this: we are still coming to terms with the changes being wrought by the information revolution. As with previous technological revolutions we must recognize and adapt to new realities if we are to thrive in the years to come.

The challenges are many, but so are the opportunities.

In order to benefit from, integrate and adapt to these technologies effectively, we need to understand their ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social implications. That is what makes your contributions as social scientists so vitally important to our success.

Now, to your other focus: Aboriginal research. Specifically, you are asking the question: How are the experiences and aspirations of Aboriginal peoples essential to our shared future?

For an answer, we need only look to our past. Simply put, without the contributions of Aboriginal peoples, Canada would not exist.

Earlier I spoke of the Fathers of Confederation and their bold idea of building a diverse, co-operative nation. In fact, the roots of Canada go much farther back, as John Ralston Saul pointed out in his wonderful book, A Fair Country.

On the matter of immigration and diversity in Canada, he wrote:

“It is a non-racial idea of civilization, and non-linear, even non-rational. It is based on the idea of an inclusive circle that expands and gradually adapts as new people join us. This is not a Western or European concept. It comes straight from Aboriginal culture.”

Saul goes on to define Canada as a “Métis civilization,” meaning our national character is by definition inclusive and mixed—and strong as a result.

In this, I can’t help but note the similarity to another influential thesis on the success and failure of societies: the book Why Nations Fail by Harvard University’s James Robinson and MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu, who is also senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The thesis of their insightful book is that societies that are politically and economically inclusive thrive, while exclusive nations and societies fail.

One reason for this is that it is essential to ensure that all members of society are able to contribute and be heard in our communities. Not only is inclusiveness the right thing to do, it is also the bright thing to do, because we will need to draw on the talents and idea of all Canadians in order to meet the challenges ahead.

We can learn so much from the insights and perspectives of Aboriginal peoples of all ages, as well as from the research and experiences of Aboriginal communities. Canada will succeed if we are able to draw lessons from and balance the greatest diversity of values, cultures and knowledge systems.

I strongly believe that, with open minds, we can take the best ideas and insights from all of our experiences and cultures and find solutions that are new, dynamic and innovative.

This brings me to my final theme today, and I’ll be brief: the importance of fostering connections between academic institutions and their communities.

Community-university networks and partnerships have such potential to help us imagine and create a better future for all.

Post-secondary institutions and the communities in which they exist are natural partners. I know this from my own experience as a university administrator. Universities can help strengthen communities—and vice versa—because a strong community supported by learning has the resources and energy to foster robust educational institutions. It is a great example of a virtuous circle.

One particularly strong example of community-campus collaboration is taking place between United Way-Centraide and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The aim of this partnership, which brings together researchers, academics and grassroots community organizations, is to ensure that social innovation is a key component of Canada’s innovation landscape.

I would like to commend all of you who are involved in strengthening the ties between education institutions and the communities they serve. Your work is so important.

And lastly, I would also like to congratulate the student Storytellers and the researchers who are receiving Impact Awards at this gathering. It is wonderful to see the recognition and encouragement of such excellence.

As governor general, I have been inviting Canadians to imagine ways to build a smarter, more caring society, and a more fair and just world.

Together, you are helping to achieve that goal, and I thank you all for your efforts. Have a wonderful conference.