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Canada's Jon Montgomery celebrates winning a gold medal in the men's skeleton competition at the Whistler Sliding Centre at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Whistler, B.C., Friday, Feb. 19, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canada's Jon Montgomery celebrates winning a gold medal in the men's skeleton competition at the Whistler Sliding Centre at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Whistler, B.C., Friday, Feb. 19, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Canada should aim to be Number 1, and not just at the Olympics Add to ...

A decade ago, just after Vancouver had been awarded the Olympics, Canada’s national winter sports organizations came together and created a program called Own the Podium. The goal was atypical for this country: Canada would seek not just to improve on past performances, record the usual collection of “personal bests”, be comfortably above average or win bronze. All of those are, make no mistake, real accomplishments. But this program would go beyond the usual Canadian ambition of being altogether not all that bad, under the circumstances.

The target chosen was simple, clear and breathtakingly ambitious: “To be the number one nation at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.” Canada had set not just a high and difficult goal, but the highest: To be the best.

And in Vancouver, Canada was. Canadian athletes finished third in the overall medal count, and won more gold medals than any other country – more gold medals than any country, ever, at any Winter Olympics.

What if we had an Own the Podium program in other areas of Canadian life? What if Canada set itself the goal of becoming the best at a whole series of things that matter far more than sports performance? What if Canada aimed to become the best country in the world? The country with the highest standard of living and highest quality of life, defined by objective measures of well-being that matter most to Canadians?

The key to Own the Podium was that it started with setting a goal. The policies and spending plans flowed from it, with the strategies of athletes and sports leaders determined by the need to meet a goal that was exceptionally ambitious, but also simple and measurable.

And Own the Podium’s goal, however ambitious, was not impossible. It was stretch, but it wasn’t overstretch. Canada failed to win a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and again at the Calgary Games in 1988. But the country’s athletes had been making steady progress in the following years. At the Winter Olympics in 2002, prior to the creation of Own the Podium, Canada had won 17 medals, finishing in fourth place in the overall medal standings, and also taking home the fourth largest number of golds. Going from near the top to the top was a big step, but it wasn’t an impossible leap.

On most measures of quality of life Canada is in very much the same position. This is already one of the world’s best countries. But what if we dreamed bigger?

Start with health. Canadians are both proud of the country’s health care system, and also sometimes frustrated by it. It’s better than most, but it sure isn’t perfect. And there are already organizations dedicated to measuring exactly how the system is doing, with the goal of prodding governments toward improvement.

But what if we had a few big and easy to understand goals – goals that, like Own the Podium, are long term and very hard to achieve? Take life expectancy. The average Canadian is living longer than ever. In fact, at 81 years, the average Canadian can already expect to live two years longer than an American. But Canadians live up to two years less than citizens of a small group other successful countries, such as Japan. What if we aimed to own that podium? What policies, which would have to go beyond just improving the medical care system, would be needed to reach that goal?

Or take wealth. Again, Canada is already a world leader. This is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, with among the highest living standards on the planet. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is high, and so is labour productivity, on which the country’s wealth is based. But we’re not number one. The Americans are generally ahead of us on these measures, and they are not alone.

What if we had some economic Own the Podium goals? How about making Canada the country with the world’s highest GDP per capita, the highest median family incomes and the lowest levels of poverty?

Those may not be exactly the right goals. They may not be the only goals. And they’re definitely difficult goals. But it’s a good place to start a conversation.

There could be a real, nation-wide argument over the best way to meet such ambitious objectives. Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats would put forward different solutions, and so would economists, education experts, tax mavens, immigration scholars and a host of other public policy analysts. But those arguments would take place around the simple goal of raising living standards, and making all Canadians better off.

Then there’s education. Here again, Canada already scores highly. The most recent edition of the Programme for Student Assessment (PISA), the triennial study of the international educational outcomes of 15 year olds, shows that Canadian students are above average – but they’re not at the top of the class. And their performance is slipping. How about aiming to own the podium on educational outcomes, on measures covering primary, secondary and post-secondary education, and the skills and knowledge of the Canadian workforce? What if we said that we didn’t just want to be good, or better (and we’re already better than most), but the best?

Let the games begin.

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