Canadian United Nations peacekeepers participate in a ceremony at the Peacekeeping Monument in Ottawa in 2013. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

by Andrew Petter

March 01, 2017

Whither Canada in a stormy world?

It is timely, during our 150 anniversary year, to consider what Canada has achieved, and what our future holds, domestically and internationally.

But given the issues facing the world today, the search for greater understanding is increasingly urgent. What is the role, the responsibility—and the opportunity—for Canada at a time when other nations, including some of our closest allies, seem bent upon erecting barriers, ignoring truths, and targeting people based on their religion, ethnicity, or nationality?

Who needs Canada?

In asking this question, as we propose to do in our fifth annual SFU Public Square Community Summit (Feb. 27 to March 8), Simon Fraser University is, perhaps, telegraphing a potential answer. If a nation’s responsibility to take action in times of need is a function of its capacity to act, that throws a particular weight on Canada.

The same is true of Canadian universities.

Consider the challenge: movements based on fear and nativism are growing in influence around the world, together with attacks on science and objectivity. Political discourse is becoming informed less by facts and evidence and more by prejudices and emotion.

In the face of these developments, universities have an obligation not only to educate students and generate knowledge within their own precincts, but also to support human rights and democratic values within society at large. Universities have the capacity and responsibility to advance intercultural and international understanding, to promote scientific knowledge and evidencebased approaches, and to strengthen democratic dialogue and decision making.

As a globally engaged university, SFU has students, faculty, and staff from around the world — a community of people who bring a wonderful diversity of knowledge, experience, and perspectives. They enrich our capacity to promote evidencebased dialogue and deliberation on issues of public policy, such as those being explored in this year’s SFU Public Square Community Summit.

The summit arises from SFU’s commitment to be Canada’s most communityengaged research university. When we developed that vision in 2012, we resolved to serve as a public square for community dialogue, based on a conviction that the health of communities—local and global—depends upon citizens coming together to share information, exchange views, and seek common ground. Once a year, we amplify this everyday commitment, opening up our physical and virtual public square for a broad community summit on a question of pressing importance.

This year we’re asking “Who needs Canada?” We have assembled an impressive group to engage the broader public and to help in our deliberations, including: analysts (Roland Paris, former adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Shuvaloy Majumdar, former adviser to foreign ministers in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government; and Inuit activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sheila WattCloutier); journalists (the Independent’s celebrated foreign correspondent Robert Fisk); pollsters (Nik Nanos); and public figures (Dashan, the persona of Canadian entertainer Mark Rowswell, who has become a cultural icon in China).

This is but one example of the kind of engagement that Canadian universities can undertake as part of a national commitment to human rights, dialogue, and democracy. The question “Who needs Canada?” is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. But no matter how we choose to answer it, there can be no question as to the quality and extent of our country’s resources and capacities, including one of the world’s foremost systems of post-secondary institutions.

Andrew Petter is president and Vice Chancellor of British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University.

The Hill Times

This article was published originally on The Hill Times on March 1, 2017.