Opinion: Who needs Canada?

February 25, 2017

Op-ed article Published in the Vancouver Sun 

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

“The world needs more Canada.”

When then-U.S. president Barack Obama spoke these words during an address to Canada’s Parliament in June 2016, they were welcomed as much more than flattery — not least because so many Canadians wanted to believe their truth.

We might wonder today whether the sentiment is still relevant. In a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, in which nationalism, protectionism and nativism are on the rise, what role is there for a middle power with an open economy that has defined itself by its commitments to humanitarianism, freer trade and multiculturalism?

That is the question that Simon Fraser University has chosen to pose for this year’s SFU Public Square Community Summit — an annual occasion on which we convene a broad public conversation on an issue both urgent and important. The question and the summit itself reflect SFU’s commitment to engagement.

For both countries and universities, inclinations to engage reflect a desire to contribute — a sense of broader responsibility. For a country like Canada, with wealth, resources and a tradition of international leadership, the question isn’t whether we should engage, but how.

We at SFU have assumed a parallel responsibility. As important as it is for Canada’s universities to equip students with knowledge and skills, and to nurture the leaders of tomorrow, we have many more riches to offer. Universities play an important role generating insight and understanding, driving discovery and innovation. Our faculty and students inquire into every vexing issue and explore every promising opportunity, without fear or favour.

SFU has gone a step further, embracing a strategic vision that challenges us, across every part of our institution, to marshal our talents, energies and resources to enrich the communities we serve. Our mission is to be “Canada’s most community-engaged research university,” one aspect of which is to serve as a public forum for communication and deliberation on key issues of the day. It’s a role we play year-round, but one we amplify annually with our SFU Public Square Community Summit.

So, in this year’s summit beginning Feb. 27, we ask the question: Who needs Canada? In a world in which labour markets are being disrupted by technology and globalization, in which ethnic and religious tensions are on the rise, and in which we face the existential threat of climate change, what is Canada’s role in the world?  How can Canada best position itself to influence world events while at the same time protecting its interests and preserving its values? If Canadians are truly committed to humanitarianism, internationalism and multiculturalism, what policies can we promote and what examples can we set to help counter global moves to tighten borders, restrict trade and limit human rights?  

As in past years, the community summit program will be varied, stimulating and highly engaging:

• There will be panel discussions with foreign-policy experts, including: Roland Paris, former adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Shuvaloy Majumdar, former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper; and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuit activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

• There will be analysis from pollster Nik Nanos, who will present his latest research on how Canadian attitudes have shifted since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

• There will be insight from The Independent’s celebrated foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who will discuss the impact of more than 20 million refugees moving around the world and challenge us to consider whether Canada is doing all that it should.

• There will be entertainment with the Vancouver debut of Dashan, the persona Canadian Mark Rowswell has assumed for his role as an entertainer and cultural celebrity in China.

• There will be illumination from Joy Johnson, SFU’s vice-president of research and international, who will share compelling examples of the university’s globally focused investigations and innovations.

In addition, thanks and credit to The Vancouver Sun, there will be conversation and controversy in these pages from thought leaders with ideas and insights on: Who needs Canada?

Their answers will challenge us to think seriously about Canada’s ambitions and capacities in the world, and about our roles and responsibilities as citizens. And, as always, the community summit will provide a forum for dialogue and a chance for us to work together to address these challenges.

Please join us.