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Brian Mulroney was Canada's 18th prime minister.

We live in a world where it is easy to be pessimistic, easier still to turn inward as we see unrelenting pressures of instability – think Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan – and the global economy still struggling to regain its footing after the massive financial and recessionary shocks of the past decade. But Canada is better positioned than many to generate prosperity and employment for its citizens and to enhance its role in world affairs, provided that Canadians can get our act together and accentuate our strengths, notably our energy and resource assets.

Our country has enormous potential. We have the third-largest supply of crude oil and natural gas in the world. We rank first in potash production, second in uranium. We are the third-largest generators of hydroelectricity, with the potential to double our current capacity.

What we lack is a coherent plan of action to harness these abundant natural resources – our strongest comparative advantage – to serve our national interest. The demand for much of what we have is growing, but we cannot sit back and wait for customers to knock on our door. We take far too much for granted, mistakenly believing that our vast resources will generate prosperity just by being there.

Canada needs a strong national commitment to build the infrastructure that will enable us to bring our resources to global markets. Make no mistake – we face fierce competition, as low-cost producers in Africa, Central Asia and elsewhere move expeditiously to meet the growing demand.

We need sensible environmental policies, as well as recognizing the fundamental need for balance between growth and sustainability.

Most of all, we need a principled partnership with First Nations and between Ottawa and the provinces that moves beyond past grievances toward future opportunities. Without these partners' active involvement and enthusiastic co-operation, Canada's natural resources will just remain in the ground.

If we decide to get our house in order, I believe we could also engage the Americans from a position of strength and deepen the integration of our energy markets to mutual benefit, and make "North American energy independence" a near-term reality. By working better together on energy, North America would also be much stronger in its dealings with China and have greater scope to influence the geopolitical dynamic in other parts of the world.

Canada's best asset and greatest leverage for influence in Washington should be its energy potential – not just because of what it can contribute to U.S. economic prospects but also because of the heft it can give us with America's global challenges.

I can envision a new North American accord on carbon emissions as part of this partnership – building on our record of combatting acid rain and cleaning up the Great Lakes together. We could agree on identical goals while using prescriptions tailored to the distinct nature of our respective resource assets and without discriminating against one another with protectionist standards wrapped in a false cloak of environmentalism.

The biggest obstacles to success are complacency and chronic inertia. The indispensable ingredient for success is firm leadership, a clear vision and consistent resolve.

When faced with a similar challenge on the launch of free-trade negotiations almost three decades ago, my government recognized that it needed a clear objective, a unique organizational structure to drive the initiative and a genuine partnership with the provinces that would serve the national interest. It became my government's top priority.

The new structure was led by the brilliant and determined Simon Reisman, included many of the best and brightest from Ottawa and reported regularly to a special cabinet committee that I chaired. The dividends are a matter of record.

We now need a similarly cohesive effort, and the spirit of partnership to spearhead expansion of our resource potential, expedite infrastructure construction, preserve our environment and bolster a broader diversification of our exports. We would need someone at the helm with the tenacity of a Reisman, plus the sensitivity of a Bob Rae or Jim Prentice, someone with the absolute confidence and persistent attention of the Prime Minister.

We definitely have the ability and opportunity to secure our economic future and play a more relevant role in the world. We can truly walk the talk of a resource super power – the question is not "Why?" but rather "Why not?"

Infometrica has estimated that already-planned investments in resource projects would generate a $1.4-trillion cumulative increase in GDP and more than six million jobs. There is no other sector with comparable potential for Canada's prosperity.

As ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us: "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing fine or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith."

It is in this perspective that great and controversial questions of public policy – the "next big thing for Canada" – must be considered.

This piece was adapted from remarks made at a Canada 2020 event in Ottawa on April 8.