Keeping Canada's Future Bright

Article excerpt

Canadians have the power to make or break this country. If we do not invest in education; immigration; our cities; standard of living; show leadership in innovation, and take bold actions to strengthen Canada, our children and grandchildren will inherit a broken country. It is time to make Canada stronger for the generations to come. Speech to the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, March 6, 2003.

I thought I might start by talking about my grandchildren. No you don't need to rush for the doors -- I didn't bring photographs. But when I think of the future of Canada, of the kind of country we want it to be, I think in terms of the country our children and grandchildren will inherit. I believe we have a responsibility to create a country where all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, will have a fighting chance to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Normally, grandparents tell their grandchildren how difficult life was when they were young, but in many ways, young people today face greater challenges than we did. Paul Valery expressed it well, "The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be."

When I joined the labor market in the 1 960s, the national unemployment rate was under 4%. At that time, Canada was in the midst of a wave of prosperity that lifted our standard of living from 72% of the Americans' after the Second World War to almost 90% by the late 1970s. The Canadian dollar was worth $1.08 U.S. That's right, it is hard to remember, but there was a time when our dollar was worth more than the American. Government budgets were generally balanced and public debt was low. The cost of a university education was relatively little and class sizes were small.

Contrast that with Canada today. The national unemployment rate surged to above 11% in the 1 990s and is now 7.4%. Our standard of living is 85% of the United States', up from its low of 8l% in 1997. Total public sector debt was 100% of GDP in 1990 and is now 70%. After a decade of restraint, government budgets are, once again, generally in balance. University tuition costs have increased at an average of 9% a year in the last 10 years and class sizes have exploded. The competition for access to top Canadian universities is fiercer than ever before and not just because of the double-cohort.

High school graduates need marks well into the 80s if not 90s for the right to sit in huge amphitheatres. Many of us would not have made the cut. The dollar? That is a subject that is too depressing to broach.

The dollar aside, we have many real strengths on which to build for the future -- a strong economy that last year outgrew all other Group of Seven nations and created more than 500,000 jobs. We have eliminated our national and most of our provincial deficits. The federal government is tackling the issue of making Canada a more competitive tax regime. The national health accord is a step in the right direction towards improving the quality and accessibility of our healthcare system. Perhaps most important of all, we have greater confidence in ourselves as a nation.

I cannot guess whether this will still be true of the Canada our children and grandchildren will inherit. None of us can predict the future with any more accuracy than we can guess by how much the Maple Leafs will beat the Sabres tonight. As Sam Goldwyn so memorably stated, "I never prophecy, especially about the future."

What we can reasonably predict is that the rate of change will continue to accelerate, that knowledge work will become ever more important, and that increasing globalization will heighten international competition for the world's brightest and best. As a proud Canadian, I would like Canada to be a leading contender in that particular contest.

What can we do today to ensure that we are? What can we do so that our grandchildren will be able to perform well in this more open world of rapid change? …