Rhiannon Traill is president and CEO of The Economic Club of Canada.
This month, the Economic Club of Canada will be hosting former first lady of The United States, Michelle Obama, for a moderated conversation in Toronto, her first in Canada. With all the excitement that comes with a visit like this, it's easy for the real message to be lost, and I don't just mean hers.
When a global public figure hits Canadian soil, all that glitters can be a massive distraction. Usually, the focus becomes more about the mere fact that someone was here rather than why. I don't want this to be the case with this event, not this time – not on my watch.
So here's to making things simple and clear: I invited the former first lady to address the Economic Club, and in this rare instance, I do have an agenda. I want to change the way we conduct our public discourse in this country. I want to change the framework we use to find innovative solutions to major policy issues and, ultimately, I want to change the way that the senior leadership in this country interacts with the future: our youth.
For those that know me well, this will not come as a surprise. When I quietly took the reins of this organization back in 2011, I made it my mission to build bridges between corporate Canada and youth. I founded the Jr. Economic Club of Canada and silently started using my revenue-generating events at The Economic Club to fund dozens of national programs directed at young people.
I leveraged the influential connections I had made on Bay Street and the C-Suite towers across the country to further the agenda and started to convince CEOs and senior government officials to have meaningful conversations with youth and dedicate their own personal time to teaching the real stuff that matters in the real world, in a real way. I won't go over the laundry list of school programs, camps, summer exchanges and media content that we have developed over the last seven years for over 40,000 youth but I will tell you why I believe it matters.
First, the economic prosperity of our nation depends on our ability to offer a modern, relevant and global-class education to all, and that responsibility should not just fall on the backs of our teachers in our public education system. It is a job for everyone, but I would argue it's especially important for Canadian business leaders to be actively engaged and help create and shape the kind of talent they are going to desperately need.
Second, it's imperative that we wake up and realize that the hierarchical pyramid framework in which many of our public and private institutions operate is not conducive to innovation or even good policy. Diversity and inclusion means more than some good research, a few dedicated staff and an aggressive PR strategy.
It's about moving over, pulling up a few more chairs and actually inviting people who don't look, act or think like the "majority" into the important conversations. If and only then we can actually use and learn from that fresh perspective, to create actual change. It's about flattening the mountain and letting the reins of power exchange hands more often – something we are just not doing enough of yet, although I know many are trying and have very good intentions here.
One of the overarching themes that Michelle Obama will address on Nov. 28 will be the economics of equality and the advancement of women and girls. However, let me clarify that this does not make this a women's event. This is a topic that should matter to every single organization and institution in this country, not just those that sell products to women or openly promote the female agenda.
Our political and economic frameworks are built within systems that historically and currently underutilize and undervalue half of our population. If that's not important to everyone, I don't know what is. I'm sure some of you wonder why I'm taking up space to explain what seems to be common sense, but the truth is, it's not yet and I witness evidence of that. Every. Single. Day.
The other special aspect about Michelle Obama's upcoming speech at the Economic Club is that of the 3000 tickets that are available, we have donated half to Plan International Canada for youth ages 14-24. This, just like the gender-equality piece, will inevitably frighten some people away, especially from the senior business community. They will assume that having youth present implies that this event will not be as serious or as hard-hitting as a typical Economic Club event and thus not worthy of their time. Others will see the youth piece as a positive – a good act of community engagement or charitable giving and the media will likely position this as the "feel good" part of the story.
However, this is not what motivates me at all. While all of those things are positive, they aren't the truth. The truth is, youth are being invited not out of an act of charity but out of necessity. We can no longer talk about massive sweeping policy change and have an entire generation absent from the conversation, or an entire gender or an entire race. I look forward to the day when current leaders talking alongside future leaders about vital economic and political issues is seen as productive, necessary and – above all else – standard.