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Anne Golden, outgoing president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada, in Toronto, May 28, 2012.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Anne Golden is not leaving public life. That's the first thing she wants you to know. She is just switching platforms, from 11 years of leading the Conference Board of Canada, an economic and social research body, to a thought-leadership role at Ryerson University in Toronto. As an inner-city university, Ryerson is an appropriate place to land for someone who has spent four decades thinking about cities and how to make them work better as generators of economic growth and social progress.

At 71, isn't this a kind of retirement?

My title at Ryerson will be distinguished visiting scholar and special adviser, and I have about seven responsibilities – from teaching a graduate course in 21st century city-regions to assisting with public-private partnerships. I would not have looked forward to nothing to do.

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I am very active physically – tennis, yoga and cycling trips with my husband – so having the time to enjoy all these sports without having to do my workouts at 5:30 a.m. is going to be great. But that's not why I am leaving the Conference Board.

So why go?

Organizations are better when they refresh their leadership. I have brought a lot of the creative new things I wanted to bring. I still could have provided solid leadership but I wanted to leave at a time when we are strong. I am leaving on a high.

And I've been commuting between Toronto and Ottawa for the past 11 years – I've flown over a million miles in that time, and we know how glamorous flying is these days. I look forward to being home in Toronto more with my family – and focusing on a lifelong interest in cities and city-regions.

Are you going to cure Toronto's problems?

In my own way I am going to try.

Why is Toronto so dysfunctional?

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I don't know if it is dysfunctional, but there are problems. In Canada, we have underinvested in infrastructure hugely since the 1970s. At the Conference Board, I tracked this lack of investment after 1977. We used to invest 4.8 per cent on average in new infrastructure, half of which was municipal. It was more or less aligned with population growth. After 1977, the actual investment is on average 0.1 per cent. It's a startling figure, and no wonder we are behind the eight ball. It is a national issue, and Toronto is the largest city.

Are there other big reasons?

We don't have our governance right as a city region. In my report on the Greater Toronto Area in 1996, I called for the political structure to align with the economic geography. We have not done that.

We have a government that covers the 416 area code, and it has now become 416 versus 905. But our problems – and our potential to develop Toronto – are not about 416 versus 905, but about 416 plus 905. We don't have a way politically of working together so the sum is greater than the individual parts. We have factionalism and friction.

And in Canada, we have never figured out the fiscal architecture of cities. And now we have increased the cities' mandates. Who would have thought, for example, when they wrote the constitution that cities would be dealing with front-line defence, with security and fears of external terrorism?

Is leadership a problem in cities?

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It is difficult to find the appropriate leadership. We are not kind to our political leaders. The level of distrust is growing in leaders, in general, and trust is the glue that makes the democratic society work.

What was it like as a non-economist to have run an economic research group?

Actually, it's economic, social and environmental. That's the thing about it – the so called business-oriented Conference Board came out in favour of a carbon tax that sets a price on carbon. The broader thing that defines the mission since I arrived is sustainable prosperity.

Are you a pessimist or optimist about Canada?

Because I'm short I like to see the glass half full – but I am having difficulty. I always look for the opportunity side of the equation. And certainly, if I compare Canada to the rest of the world, there is no better place to be, despite our problems – our under-investment in infrastructure, the social issues among our aboriginal brethren, and failure to integrate immigrants so they fully share in our prosperity. You still wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

But I look at things not as 'Are we better than others?' but 'Are we the best we can be?' We should judge ourselves by: Are we maximizing our good fortune? We are so blessed in physical capital and resources.

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But why, for example, can't we move to a more prevention-oriented, more timely and more effective health system? We should be the best, but we are not. It's the same with social housing. We should be the best, but we are not.

I remember when Canada had no food banks but now, not only do we have food banks in all our significant communities, but we've institutionalized them. What is that? And income inequality in Canada is growing faster than even among our American neighbours (who, in overall inequality are still much worse than us). What is that? We're a rich country. Are we the best we can be?

So are we satisfied with just being good?

People in the past have said Canada is a country that goes for the bronze. That's why I loved the 'Own the Podium' mission at the Olympics. We should go for the gold in all areas because we are so blessed.

You are one of Canada's best networkers. How do you do it?

I don't think most people like to go into strange rooms and network for the sake of business. And a lot of my work at the United Way and the Conference Board has been about raising money. I made up my mind a long time ago that you have to like and be interested in people you are working with. If you don't see it as a chance to understand their issues, to like them and make relationships, you will not be happy.

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You have said it will take 150 years for women to achieve parity in management positions. Why aren't we doing better?

We had done some new research, and I was surprised we haven't made more progress. Women in the C-suite and on boards have plateaued. We have 2,000 people going through leadership courses every year and we look at [employers'] 360-degree reviews of these people. We found that women managers going into these courses are generally rated higher than males entering the same courses. So the idea we lack the talent pool is bogus.

Partly it is women's choices. Managing partners of law firms, for example, say they have trouble getting women to run for partner. They want a balanced life. It is also the courses they have chosen – women were slow to move into engineering and now they dominate engineering programs, but they are less prominent in technical fields in demand. And there are cultural issues – people are more comfortable with whom they know than whom they don't they know.

How old are you again?

I'm 71. I don't think of myself as an old person – I think of myself as a young person to whom a lot has happened.


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ANNE GOLDEN, Former president and CEO, Conference Board of Canada


Born in Toronto, 71 years old


BA in history from University of Toronto; MA from Columbia University and PhD in American History from University of Toronto

Career highlights

Research co-ordinator for the Bureau of Municipal Research (1973-78)

Special adviser to the provincial Leader of the Opposition (1978-81), director of policy research for the Ontario Liberal Party (1981-82)

President of the United Way of Greater Toronto for 14 years

President and chief executive officer of The Conference Board of Canada from October, 2001 to this month

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