Stronger Together: SFU, the pandemic and lessons for a better future

April 30, 2021

Address at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

Joy Johnson
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Thank you for joining today.

It’s wonderful to be here -- even from a studio.

This is my first address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade as SFU’s new President and I have been looking forward to it for some time.

We have a great moderator in Chris Lewis.  Mr. SFU as he is known.

And I am looking forward to getting to his and your questions – so I will try to leave lots of time for that in the hour that we have together.

Let me begin by acknowledging that I am privileged to be speaking to you today on the unceded traditional territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam Peoples.

As a settler on these lands, I recognize a responsibility to address and repair relations with the Indigenous people whose lands we occupy … acknowledging this is an important step towards reconciliation.

I also want to thank everyone at the Board of Trade for organizing today’s event.

Staging these events virtually is no easy task.  And the Board of Trade staff have been just fantastic.

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade reflects a spirit of service and community -- this spirit has been particularly important over the last year.

SFU deeply values our long-standing relationship. I want to thank the Board for your recent support of the Burnaby Mountain Gondola.

I look forward to building on the success of our relationship in the months and years ahead for the benefit of all British Columbians.

Like you -- like just about everyone -- I am looking forward to things returning back to a new normal.

I can’t wait for our students to return in September and communities and businesses to come back to life.

With the vaccine rollout, we can see light at the end of the tunnel, however, we all recognize we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

As your President and CEO Bridgette Anderson said. “We must approach economic recovery efforts with the same determination as the public health emergency.”

I could not agree more.

Once the pandemic is behind us, we can’t go back to the way things were before.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many weaknesses in our economy and society that have made us vulnerable.

We have to address those root causes.

We have to – in the phrase of the moment – build back better.

That’s what I want to talk about today…

…working together to build a better, more prosperous, resilient and inclusive future.

As a university deeply committed to engaging the communities we serve, SFU is uniquely positioned to help in this larger effort.

That’s true of British Columbia’s entire post-secondary community, which has come together to keep delivering high-quality education to tens of thousands of students across the province.

I want to begin by saying a few words about how SFU responded to the pandemic because it goes to the larger point I want to make about how we can confront the challenges ahead.

At SFU, the pandemic presented the biggest logistical challenge in our history.

I am sure it was for many of your businesses too.

Now I know we have all had our fill of PowerPoints on zoom, but I brought one slide with me to show SFU’s impact.

SFU is a City unto itself.

37,000 students and 7,500 faculty and staff spread across three campuses.

8,500 international students from 137 countries.

66 research centres and institutes.

SFU researchers collaborate with researchers from more than 3,000 institutions in 125 countries.

We’re also, I am proud to say, ranked as Canada’s #1 comprehensive university.

So, when we had to close our doors and move the entire university on-line almost overnight, it was no small task.

And given the stakes for a generation of students, for our institution and for the community, failure was not an option.

In the same way that so many businesses in BC pulled together through this pandemic, the entire SFU community leaned into the challenge.

Faculty had to quickly and seamlessly move their courses on-line.

Students showed incredible patience and resolve as they moved their learning on-line, studied at their parent’s kitchen tables and managed connectivity problems.

Scientists worked on new testing and therapeutics related to COVID 19.

Researchers helped us better understand the pandemic’s course and its impact – they engaged with the press and educated the public.

And of course, all of our staff worked so hard to make it all possible.

I could not be prouder of our university community.

And let me say thank you to everyone at SFU – many who have joined today – for their commitment and professionalism over the last year.

Their effort was mirrored throughout the post-secondary community and society, particularly in BC’s business community.

Alongside front-line health care workers, educators and so many more, BC’s businesses kept our economy and society going.

And through it all, we have learned a big and extremely valuable lesson – one that will reverberate for many years to come:

That lesson is this: …WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER… Stronger together.

I believe this lesson gives us hope for the future.

And we will need to return to it again and again if we are going to confront the challenges of a post-pandemic world and lay the foundation for long-term economic growth and prosperity.

Today, I want to talk specifically about three strategies that SFU is using to help in this larger effort.

First, I want to talk about how we need to expand the reach and impact of post-secondary education.

Second, I want to say a few words about the potential we have to marshal our research to grow our economy and improve lives.

And third, I want to underline the importance of advancing equity in all that we do.

Expanding the Reach and Impact of Post-Secondary Education

So let me start with the importance of expanding the reach and impact of post-secondary education.

From their very beginnings in the middle-ages, universities have played a central role equipping people to participate in society and contribute to the economy.

In Canada since the end of the Second World War, universities have been extraordinary engines for economic and social mobility -- helping to grow an economy where the benefits have been widely shared.

SFU exemplifies the promise of this engine.

We are known for our outsized impact on economic and social well-being.

Engaging and supporting communities is in our DNA.

But we also recognize that when societies and economies change, so too must our approach to education.

And today – more than ever before – a university education is a path to a successful career in a job market where university acquired skills are in high demand.

It is therefore critical that we greatly expand the reach and impact of post-secondary education as part of a robust and successful post-pandemic economic strategy for the province.

There are many ways universities can work with government, business, labour, Indigenous peoples and communities to grow a sustainable and robust economy.

One of the most meaningful ways we do that is by giving our students the kind of practical real-world experiences that will help them sharpen their skills and develop a better understanding of themselves.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Fraser Health Vaccine Campaign

Everyone who has been to a vaccination centre has seen the enormous effort it takes to put shots in the arms of so many people.

It’s truly remarkable – a wonderful expression of community spirit and solidarity.

Vaccination centers are also a place where our students can learn a great deal about what it takes to respond to a public health crisis.

And with that in mind, SFU is partnering with the Fraser Health Authority to make work opportunities available for our students such as site navigators and clerks to help in the delivery of vaccines over the spring and summer.

It’s just the kind of creative partnership that will help our students learn new skills while contributing to the health and well-being of the larger community.

So too is the work we are doing to help adult learners retool and upskill – a critical need in this economy.

We are already offering tailored programming in areas like big data and AI and are looking to expand our capacity.


And this past month, we became a founding member of Pallette, a leading national non-profit that is focussed on filling the skills gap.

I am very excited about this new initiative.

Led by someone many of us know, Arvind Gupta, Pallette is a partnership of leading academic and business organizations, including the Business Council of BC, aimed at meeting the needs of Canada’s most innovative companies by rapidly upskilling workers.

In Ontario, Pallette has already developed successful programs in business-to-business sales and cybersecurity.

And we are looking forward to working with the Business Council of BC to ensure Pallette is just as successful in the west.

So that is one important way that we are stronger together: Universities working in partnership with the community to expand the reach and impact of post-secondary education by giving learners real world skills.

Marshalling our Research to Grow our Economy and Improve Lives

Now let me turn to the second way SFU can help us confront the challenges ahead: marshalling our research to grow our economy and change lives.

As a researcher, scientist and former Vice-President Research at SFU, this is a passion of mine.

SFU’s research impact is felt throughout BC, Canada and the world.

We consistently rank among Canada’s top research universities and are among the top-ranked universities in the world for impact on sustainable cities and communities.

SFU’s research strengths have been particularly valuable during the pandemic where our scientists and researchers have been called upon to help our province and country navigate through a public health crisis.

Again, working together in collaboration with business, government and the larger community is the key.

And that principle drives our planning across a range of exciting new initiatives, like the new medical school, the Quantum Algorithms Institute announced last year and…

Canadian Network for Modeling Infectious Disease

…the new Canadian Network for Modeling Infectious Disease that I am proud to say will be led by SFU’s own Dr. Caroline Colijn from our mathematics department.

We’ve learned a great deal about what it takes to be better prepared for a health emergency.

And this new Network will greatly increase Canada’s capacity for infectious disease modeling – a key part of improving public health – and protecting our economy.

It is an excellent example of how universities can collaborate and partner with other universities and the wider community to improve public health.

And it is a case study in how SFU’s research strengths are being mobilized to build more resilient communities.

So too is SFU’s Low Carbon Innovation Centre that is being established this fall.

With a $22 million endowment from the federal government, the Low Carbon Innovation Centre will help identify, finance and scale-up local climate solutions.

It will generate new jobs, build skills and expand capabilities as we move to a more sustainable economy.

We are thrilled that SFU’s Renewable Cities Program was chosen to launch and host this new centre.

We are also excited about SFU’s Sustainable Engineering Program that recently opened at a new state-of-the-art building on our Surrey Campus.

A first of its kind in Western Canada, the Sustainable Engineering Program is enabling SFU to generate incredible new talent and research.

And it’s helping to cement SFU’s place as a leader in cleantech and sustainable engineering solutions.

These are just a few examples of why SFU was recently recognized as the Top Education Institute at the BC Cleantech Awards.

Advancing Equity in All That We Do

Finally, I want to say a few words about what SFU is doing to make progress on a third strategy that is critical to our future:  Advancing equity in all that we do.

Of the many issues that COVID-19 has both exposed and exacerbated, the economic and social costs of inequality and inequity have been some of the most profound.

It’s true: we have all been through this storm together.

But we haven’t all been in the same boat.

The economic and social impact of COVID-19 has been felt by some much more than others.

These are not new issues.

Inequality in our society has been growing for generations.

But the pandemic has added renewed urgency to issues like the ongoing toll colonialism has taken on Indigenous peoples, the rise of hate, xenophobia and discrimination, and the deep economic inequalities that harm our communities and our economy.

To “build back better” we have to work on bridging these divides in the pursuit of a more just society and also a more prosperous society.

I know that the Board of Trade is leaning into this important work, bringing people together in business to combat systemic racism.

And I commend you for it.

SFU also has an important to role to play.

We serve as a public square to support difficult conversations and to take action.

And we are rolling up our sleeves to get on with this work.

Let me give you a few examples:

A lot of people just don’t see university as part of their future.

A university campus may not be thought of as a welcoming place or a community where they can imagine thriving. For others – university education may seem totally out of reach.

Stronger together means nothing if we don’t fix this.

We have to make universities places where there are new pathways for people to attend university and succeed.

At SFU we are working with our partners, particularly our First Nations partners, to open up new pathways for Indigenous students…

…creating conditions at SFU where students can thrive and where traditional knowledge is embraced.

We are also engaging with refugee communities in a number of important ways. We are providing scholarships and supports for refugee students and collaborating on joint-research projects.

And we are working on our structures to create accountability - ensuring unbiased hiring practices, new policies and new positions.  Soon we will hire a new Vice-President for People, Equity and Inclusion.

So many others are stepping up to support this work.

Recently, SFU Alum Lance Uggla and his family made a generous gift to SFU to support students who are members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, those living with a disability and those who identify as Indigenous, Black, or a person of colour with full ride scholarships.

This support will help transform lives.

And it will help us live up to our commitment to build stronger, more inclusive, and prosperous communities for all British Columbians.


At the end of the day, I believe that this is the future we all seek.

A sustainable future where the foundation for growth and prosperity is built on the knowledge that we share a common destiny.

The pandemic has woken us up to this reality.

It has challenged us to think differently.

And it has shown us that when confronted by the biggest health and economic crisis in our lifetimes, that we are stronger together.

Now as we look to recovery, we must not lose focus.

To build back better, we must continue to pull together.

…Business, government, the post-secondary sector, and civil society in common cause to tackle big challenges that confront us – from competitiveness to climate change.

SFU is answering the call.

I know you are too.

On behalf of everyone in the SFU community,

Thank you