When it comes to public policy discourse, Canada is snoozing and it is losing, according to a prominent businessman and philanthropist.
“We fell asleep on updating our public policy thinking over the last 30 years,” says Jim Balsillie, former chairman and co-chief executive officer of Research In Motion (now BlackBerry Ltd.). “In the central issues of our times, our policy community needs help in upping our game.”
To that end, Balsillie, has put his money and his name where his mouth is: The new Balsillie Prize for Public Policy is worth $60,000 to the author of the book judged to be the best Canadian book in that non-fiction category. The Writers’ Trust of Canada has announced the four short-listed titles for the inaugural annual award.
Among them is Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada’s Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic, which was written by Montreal-based Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard and published by Random House Canada. “Wouldn’t that have been a nice policy discussion to have five years ago rather than last year?” asks Balsillie.
According to the three-person Balsillie Prize jury, Neglected No More is “an urgent, powerful appeal to the nation and a blueprint for treating all seniors with the dignity, respect, and compassion they deserve.”
The other finalists for the Balsillie Prize are Toronto’s Dan Breznitz, for Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World (Oxford University Press); Victoria’s Gregor Craigie, for On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake (Goose Lane Editions); and Vancouver’s Jody Wilson-Raybould, for Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power (HarperCollins).
The first Balsillie Prize will be revealed Nov. 24.
In selecting the finalists, the jury composed of author and physician Samantha Nutt, policy expert Taki Sarantakis and digital strategist Scott Young considered 69 titles submitted by 34 publishers. Each finalist is guaranteed $5,000.
The $60,000 grand prize is $10,000 more than the amount handed to the yearly winner of the Donner Prize, which, since 1998, has recognized excellence in public policy writing by Canadian authors. Asked why a second prize in the same field was needed, the namesake benefactor suggested there can never be too much discourse on the subject.
“Public policy essentially shapes everything in our lives,” says Balsillie, chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators. “Either you shape it or it shapes you.”
In 2018, Balsillie appeared before a House of Commons committee on misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that improperly obtained the data of 87 million Facebook users. He was part of a group who told MPs that Facebook and Google represented a new form of “surveillance capitalism” and called for more robust control over the U.S.-based web giants.
“Technology may not be everything,” Balsillie says, “but if you don’t understand it, you don’t understand how it’s shaping discourse on climate, security, politics, sovereignty and economics.”
Public policy titles that are among Balsillie’s favourites are Matt Stoller’s Goliath, Joe Stiglitz’s People, Power and Profits, William Burns’s The Back Channel and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
And the book he keeps coming back to is Donald J. Savoie’s Democracy in Canada, from 2019. “Fundamentally, he writes about the disintegration of our institutions and why our institutions are eroding,” Balsillie says. “I would agree with him, but I also say that not only do we need to revitalize our existing institutions, we need new ones.”
To inspire change and promote the most discussion, books should transcend public policy circles. Classic game-changers of the genre include Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, from 1965, which altered the auto industry. Nader was inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which highlighted the dangers of the pesticide DDT to the environment.
“If a book stays in a narrow, academic world, then its probability of driving political change is low,” Balsillie says. “You want crossover books, and that’s why I’m supporting them. That’s the core motive.”
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