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Fans pour into the street in Vancouver after the Olympic gold medal men's hockey game between Canada and the United States on Feb. 28, 2010. The prayers of a nation were answered, as Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 in overtime to win the last gold medal of the Olympics. (ANDREW BURTON/The New York Times)
Fans pour into the street in Vancouver after the Olympic gold medal men's hockey game between Canada and the United States on Feb. 28, 2010. The prayers of a nation were answered, as Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 in overtime to win the last gold medal of the Olympics. (ANDREW BURTON/The New York Times)

Canada Competes

What is Canada’s greatest untapped asset? Add to ...

Aside from tired old tropes (oil, water, trees), what should our country develop in order to boost our competitive edge? We asked four Canadians in diverse fields to name an unexpected resource.

Big brains, basic science

Bob McDonald

Science journalist and host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, who started his career as a demonstrator at the Ontario Science Centre

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From a science point of view, our greatest asset is brainpower. Canadian scientists are highly regarded around world. We have teams working on the Large Hadron Collider, one of the largest experiments in the world. We are well regarded on space – we were the third country in space, and we continue to lead in satellite and robotic technologies. We’ve just had Chris Hadfield on the International Space Station. We’re big in nanotech and genetics research. But I don’t think we’re tapping it, because funding in fundamental science – why-is-the-sky-blue science – is being cut back. I think that’s a loss not only to Canada, but to the world. Fabulous universities are putting out really smart people and a lot of them are leaving to go to other countries.

Our current funding for science in Canada has switched to applied science, so it’s all about making money and coming up with products that can boost the economy. We need that, but we also need to put the balance back to more basic research. Historically, all major advances in technology have come out of basic research. If you don’t do that, you don’t stumble on new things you weren’t looking for.

We also need to get more young people interested in science and technology – not just through universities, but also through science centres, TV programming and so on. Right now, they’re more inspired by felons coming out of Hollywood. Thank God for Chris Hadfield, who has been a really positive role model.

I’d like to see more science programming on television. We have the Discovery Channel and Daily Planet, which do a great job, but there’s room for a lot more. I did a series a few years ago, called Heads Up, all about space, and I’ve pitched other series since then, but the networks always say they can’t afford it – but they can afford people singing karaoke or dancing or going through ridiculous obstacle courses, and that bothers me.

I also have problem with overprotective parents who aren’t letting their kids outside. I’d like to see kids torn away from iPhones and video games and thrown outside. Let them eat some dirt. Get them out into nature. Instead of virtual reality, how about reality?

Our kids are our future. They are the future scientists, politicians and business people who will make the decisions about how we’re going to live on this overheating planet. We need good science education, so that when we’re debating climate change, we have good, knowledgeable conversations, instead of being swayed by climate change deniers. We need to help kids tell good science from pseudo-science.

The potential of low-income workers

Ed Broadbent

Founder of the Broadbent Institute and former leader of the federal New Democratic Party

Canada’s greatest untapped resource is the skills and capacities of our lowest-income workers. We have one of the world’s most educated populations, but many Canadians without a degree spend their lives trapped in low-paying and insecure jobs that lead nowhere, when they could be an economic force to be reckoned with.

Note that this group includes higher-than-average levels of already disadvantaged workers: recent immigrants whose international work experience and credentials are undervalued, aboriginal Canadians and workers who left school early and therefore lack literacy and math skills. Underinvestment by Canadian employers in skills training, and by governments in retraining programs, mean that these workers bear the brunt of economic downturns, and then in times of prosperity are denied chances to contribute to Canada and to advance themselves.

Canada needs programs that offer affordable skills training to underemployed workers, perhaps through training leaves funded by the Employment Insurance program — similar to the current apprenticeship program. We also need to undo recent funding changes by the federal government that put the few provincial programs that do work at risk.

Culture as tourist draw

Elaine Calder

Executive director of the Shaw Theatre Festival

Cultural tourism: We have a lot of festivals and major events right across the country that already attract a number of people from outside Canada. But I suspect we all have excess capacity, and we’d all like to see more recognition of Canada’s cultural experience. If you think of Brand Canada, you can promote it abroad, or you can promote it at home, by bringing people here – and not only cultural tourists, but those whose opinions people trust, like the media. A really simple example: I had this same job at the Shaw [festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.] 20 years ago, and back then, the Ontario government had a program to pay the expenses of journalists to come to places like the Shaw. Because if they went back to Los Angeles or Chicago or London to write about what they experienced here, that would drive tourism, and that would drive the economy. Cultural tourists tend to be older, better educated and more affluent. The Americans who come to the Shaw tend to stay longer and spend more money in town than most of our Canadian visitors – they’ve had to cross an international border to get here, and they want to have a full experience.

All of the festivals and major events do their own international marketing and promotion, but the trouble is that we are trying to reach so many markets. The Internet is great, and we all use social media a lot, but we need to spend more money – and resources are tight. We have been lobbying and advocating, mostly in Ottawa, for some kind of special funding, because of the tourism component of what we do. The Canada Council for the Arts is terrific and supports our work, but there’s a whole tourism aspect that isn’t funded at all.

Focus on the best 20 per cent

Rick George

Chairman of Penn West Petroleum Ltd. and former chief executive officer of Suncor Energy Inc.

When I think about Canada’s challenges, it’s not about potash or natural gas or coal; it’s about how we better use the people we have. Our productivity numbers relative to the United States and to other parts of world are not great. This is a great, rich country, but that can breed a bit of complacency. It doesn’t help spawn the Steve Jobs of the world.

We also have an aging work force, without fully using our young people. We have aboriginal and First Nations communities that are, at least in part, very isolated and not part of the broader economy. We do have a number of Aboriginal communities that have economic models that have worked very well, where they’re close to full employment and where young people see a better future. We have to get those models out there, because the perception is that we’re making no progress.

Another part of this is our immigration policy – and I do think the federal government has made a few right steps on that, moving us away from being a refugee-status country to one whose policy is based on what this country needs going forward. I also don’t think we were helped a lot by the 2008-’09 recession. It slowed down the retirement of boomers, who had to work longer, and it slowed down companies’ investment in research and development.

We’re starting to see universities making sure their curriculum and the people they graduate are where the jobs are. That’s quite helpful. And corporations need to take the risk, and also the opportunity, to develop young people quicker than we have in the past.

When I work around young people, I think about the 80/20 rule: 20 people will want to excel and will tend to drive business and society forward. We need to get more and more young people to climb into that 20 per cent, so that number gets bigger. It’s a multiplier effect. You’ve got to hit this life with maximum velocity.

These answers have been edited and condensed

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