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Better railway connections for people and freight – such as this CP line through the Rocky Mountains near Banff, Alta. – is one idea to improve Canada’s infrastructure.TODD KOROL/Reuters

Trains, not planes and automobiles

The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson

Canada's 26th Governor-General, author, former television host and journalist, cultural champion

We built a country where we foresaw the need to be connected for goods, and populations, and so forth. The country would never have been formed if not for railroads. Now, we are more connected via digital, but as bus schedules shrink and train lines disappear I'm worried all the time that people in smaller centres will lose that contact with larger communities. Commuting by car is not easy, and it takes so much time, and that is lost profitability and also in terms of people's ability to do their work. Why do we not have a public transportation system, which goes ahead of where we're planning to have new communities?

To me in many ways, an ideal sized community is 30,000 to 60,000 people. Brandon, Man.: That kind of community is large enough to have people do what they want and live where they want. I think smaller communities are still very viable, if we just think of making sure that people have choices when there's a need for them to go places, that they can do it without their own investment in a car. We have the luxury of not having a car, because we live right in the centre of Toronto, we walk and we are serviced by a terrific transportation system. Why should the people in the cities have more access to things than people who want to live in and create their businesses in smaller communities?

We go to France quite a lot, and the infrastructure of railways is quite incredible. When I was a student in France, the fast train from Paris to Marseille took 13 hours. Now, the trip is just under three hours on the TGV, and it is just amazing. We don't realize how backward we are. We don't realize that in Germany, Italy, Spain the linkups are incredible. We don't realize how much we could ease things for people and business. People wouldn't feel like they have to move from smaller towns in order to succeed. Then people can stay where they would like to live, and it leads to the creation of smaller local industry.

There are rail lines around, that just need to be brushed off, I don't think they've been dug up. I think we'll look back and think of this absurd time when people went about in tens of thousands dollars worth of machines and then filling them up at $2.10 a litre, and wonder "did that really make sense?"

A green grid that's smart

David Miller

President and CEO of WWF-Canada, former mayor of Toronto, Future of Cities Global Fellow at Polytechnic Institute of New York University

Imagine this headline: Canada's Green Energy Poised to Power the World. It isn't a utopian dream. It's an attainable solution. The technology that will enable it is here, now, in the form of next-generation "smart" electricity grids.

Innovations in grid infrastructure will maximize energy efficiency and meet power demand consistently by drawing on a much wider and cleaner variety of energy sources. Two-way communication between consumers and the grid will help people save power and money.

The ability to deploy distributed generation will maximize the potential of renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal), making both fossil fuel generation and big, baseload power ultimately obsolete. Resilient and self-healing, smart grids will virtually eliminate shortages and blackouts.

But, like all disruptive technology, the real transformative power of smart grids will be driven by human creativity. Think about, for example, transportation – Canada's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Electrifying public transit and personal vehicles through green-powered grids would represent a massive step forward in meeting global climate imperatives, while simultaneously spurring the growth of infrastructure for more livable cities.

Further, there's the opportunity to take full advantage of Canada's manufacturing base, our energy expertise, well-educated work force, and most importantly, our vast renewable energy potential – one of the greatest in the world. Think about green electrons flowing south to help the United States lower emissions, while Canadian-made green technology and know-how is exported across the world.

In concert with thought-leaders across the country, we're calling for an Energy Strategy that empowers Canada to achieve our economic potential while demonstrating climate leadership.

The electricity networks that power our world are one of the greatest engineering feats of the last hundred years. Modernizing them over the coming decades will determine Canada's success in the next. This is nation building at its best—creating jobs and an economy designed to thrive in a world whose future hinges on low-carbon solutions. This is the Canada that's possible, the Canada that does better than compete – that leads.

Roads to economic growth on reserves

Bernie Farber

Former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress, senior vice-president with Gemini Power Corp., human rights advocate

If you live in a Canadian city, town, village, rural cottage, farm or even a mobile home, you take roads for granted. Yes, we all complain about potholes or insufficient highway and road lanes. Some rural roads have little or poor lighting while many roads outside major urban areas are single-lane only.

If you were to take a trip to Canada's First Nations reserves, particularly in the north, your complaints would look trivial.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Lac La Croix First Nation reserve (LLFN) in northwestern Ontario. Until recently, Lac La Croix could not even be accessed by road. It was strictly fly-in, fly out. Today as you turn off Highway 11, just past Atikokan, Ont., onto the road leading to the reserve, leaving the single lane paved road for a less maintained gravel road, for more than 70 kilometres the road twists and turns. You hold your breath as a car approaches from the opposite direction, hoping neither of you are forced off the road.

The conditions of the road and bleakness are one thing; more to the point, you realize how difficult it must be to ensure the simple necessities of life when the only path leading into where you live is at best a lumber road and at worst impassable if weather conditions are bad.

How many people would want to work in such an inaccessible area? LLFN has a part-time public health nurse who can reach a doctor if the phone lines work. There is spotty cell service at best. If there is a medical emergency a helicopter ride to the nearest hospital can take two hours or more. Sadly such circumstances can mean the difference between life and death.

And consider the employment situation in such communities. With poor road access, how much industry can be sustained in places like the LLFN? Is it any wonder unemployment is so high? Is it any wonder that self esteem, hope and dignity are difficult to find on many reserves?

Anywhere outside a First Nations reserve, such conditions would simply not be tolerated. Sadly, First Nations, many situated in remote areas of the country, leave Aboriginal leaders without an effective advocacy voice for local needs. Few hear and fewer listen.

We have driven First Nations from their traditional lands, poisoned their waters and trampled their rights. We have not yet learned to treat the earth with respect and have left a legacy of pollution for all our children.

Changing this paradigm, in my view, is essential to realize a sustainable economy on First Nations reserves. Just as importantly, it's the right thing to do.

To start, we can make the federal and provincial authorities responsible for First Nations infrastructure assess reserves where accessibility is a key factor in stifling economic growth. Committing to act and taking proper action would breathe life into reserves that until now saw very little hope.

Making reserves accessible by building decent roads could spur the growth of industry, including hydro-electric plants, lumber mills and more. Simply throwing money into reserves without improving infrastructure makes no sense. We must look to building sustainable economies on the reserves themselves. Other vital issues, from health care to improving social welfare, can be natural tributaries flowing from such economic growth.

Hopefully when historians look back at this upcoming decade they will call it the "Decade of Aboriginal growth and change."

Let's create a Canadian Warhol

Charles Pachter

Painter, printmaker, sculptor, designer, historian and lecturer

Canada is vast, under-populated and frankly, not that sophisticated. In the upper echelons of the art world, the only Canadian value-added stuff is Group of Seven. In Canada, living artists who are doing cutting-edge work are not built up to be art stars. It's not part of our ethos. Canada has not created an Andy Warhol or a David Hockney. I'm a bit of both.

I drove across Canada for the first time when I was 26. I had a job teaching at the University of Calgary. I was awestruck by the country's size and its emptiness.

When I came back to Toronto in the 1970s, Warhol was doing Campbell's Soup cans and images of Marilyn and Jackie. I started to think about Canadian pop imagery. I thought, 'If the Americans can elevate their banalities to art, why can't we?'

I can't stop emphasizing the vastness of the country. On the other side of the mountains, most people in Vancouver don't know who the Ontario artists are and vice-versa.

But the succinct answer to boosting Canada's cultural infrastructure is that we need more enlightened state and corporate sponsorship to assist in building up the careers of notable contemporary artists.

What it's really all about is dollars. How do you find a company like Coca-Cola or Canadian Tire or Tim Hortons to sponsor more Canadian contemporary artists and arrange with Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Vancouver, etc. to finance definitive retrospectives and get their work seen in museums around the world? Just like Ai Weiwei or David Bowie.

In the great scheme of things, Canadian contemporary art has not been value-added in Canada in the same way as contemporary art from other countries. On n'est jamais prophète en son pays.

Is there a Canadian lack of self-assurance? Does the 'Who do you think you are?' syndrome still exist? TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) has become an important player in the film promotion business, when, bottom-line, it is a bunch of actors and directors who want to make sure their work gets seen and known. And Toronto obliges, big time.

Answers have been edited and condensed.

With reports from Shane Dingman and Christina Varga

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