In a career spanning 50 years, Claude Ryan has been, among other things, an advocate for education. Quebec’s most distinguished editorialist, the Leader of the province’s Official Opposition, the leader of the Non forces in the 1980 referendum, and a Cabinet minister in various portfolios in the governments of Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson. In recent years, he has been an active participant in many IRPP colloquia and has appeared many times in the Institute’s publications. On the occasion of IRPP’s 30th anniversary, he is being made a Lifetime Fellow of the Institute. Policy Options editor William Watson talked with Mr. Ryan on March 26, 2002.

 

William Watson: You are one of Canada’s best-known ”œpublic intellectuals.” What influence do you think ideas have on public policy? Do they have a direct influence?

Claude Ryan: Public policy is not guided by ideas alone. It’s also guided by vested interests and by feelings and emotions. But ideas are extremely important just the same. There are numerous examples in Canada. Take health insurance, for instance. We have a health-insurance system in Canada because some intellectuals conceived the idea that the state should play a larger part in protecting the health of its citizens.

Another interesting example is automobile insurance in Quebec; so is the creation of the Ministry of Education in Quebec, and the equality of the two official languages in Canada, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All of those are measures that have a decisive influence on the everday lives of Canadians and on Canadian culture and which originated largely in ideas put forward by intellectuals. At the beginning, those ideas were often thought of as abstractions that didn’t have much chance of being put into practice. It takes time for new ideas to be accepted " they don’t win recognition immediately. It’s a bit like a stream that gradually wears the rock away. But eventually an idea can have a great influence on public policy.

William Watson: But behind these ideas there are vested interests that promote or support them? Even in the case of health insurance.

Claude Ryan: You’re right. Neither vested interests nor ideas exist separately in a pure state. They’re intermingled, but ultimately, as in the examples I mentioned, an idea is often more important than the interests of a particular group.

William Watson: So ideas do have a definite influence, as Lord Keynes said?

Claude Ryan: Yes, they do. But sometimes they’re intermingled with vested interests too. It’s hard to separate things completely.

William Watson: Is the situation different in Quebec than in the rest of the country?

Claude Ryan: In that regard I don’t think so. Laurier said that in Quebec feelings were more important than ideas. But I think that was a politician’s observation, which was limited to his own experience. My observations have been different. In some ways political debates in Quebec are more lively because on the fundamental questions they are influenced more by ideas.

William Watson: It’s often said that there’s no equivalent of Le Devoir in English Canada.

Claude Ryan: Yes, but there’s also no paper like The Globe and Mail in Quebec. Neither of the two societies is really superior to the other. Each has its strong points. Even though I don’t always agree with the editorial positions of the Globe, I consider it a world-class newspaper.

William Watson: In which ideas are important…

Claude Ryan: Very important indeed.

William Watson: What is your opinion about the state of political debate in Quebec and Canada these days?

Claude Ryan: At the moment we’re in a period of relative calm, of quiet stagnation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are several reasons for that. First, because of the failure of the latest attempts to achieve an overall solution to the constitutional question, Canadians" especially the political leaders " have become more prudent. The emphasis now is more on single- issue and administrative arrangements than on the big debates that would settle questions once and for all. Unity is still a major concern, but it’s a time for pragmatism rather than total solutions. That’s not necessarily bad. The calm that we see in the Canadian public debates can perhaps be explained by the quiet homogenization of ideas that’s taking place, especially as a result of the Charter of Rights, globalization and the presence, indeed the ubiquity, of American culture.

William Watson: Homogenization?

Claude Ryan: That all has an influence, and in the end people are less inclined to emphasize the divisive issues. We have more values in common in our everyday lives, I think.

William Watson: Things are quiet on the sovereignty issue, the constitutional question, but are they quiet on other political issues?

Claude Ryan: Yes, they are. Take the role of the state, for example. Employers are constantly agitating for a reduction in the role of the state. But when the corporations have difficulties, they’re the first to call on the government for help. You can see that in the negotiations with the United States over softwood lumber. We need governments to play a part in the economy as well as in culture. And that’s why purely ideological debates don’t have much effect on the average Canadian.

William Watson: So we’ve reached a sort of equilibrium?

Claude Ryan: Yes. And in a way I think that’s a good thing.

William Watson: What is the role of think-tanks in the policy process?

Claude Ryan: In the United States there are a great many think-tanks, and they’re very important. In Canada we have only a few that I know of, but on the whole their influence has been very beneficial. The three main ones I know of are the C.D. Howe Institute, the IRPP and the Caledon Institute. I like the IRPP very much " I’ve been following it for years. The contribution of the non-governmental research institutions has been felt especially in the defining of problems, in the way prob- lems are seen and situations understood. I don’t expect solutions from these think-tanks, but rather new data and original ways of understanding a situation, and especially the ability to compare different ideas. I think the IRPP does that very well. The unique think about the IRPP is that it’s been able to fulfill its mandate in both offi- cial languages. It’s the only institution of this kind that respects both lan- guages in its operations. I appreciate that enormously.

William Watson: But you don’t expect solutions from the think-tanks?

Claude Ryan: Not really. The solutions have to come from other places: political parties, newspapers, unions, chambers of commerce and so on. It can happen that a think-tank publishes the work of a researcher that recommends solutions. That’s normal. But I don’t expect solutions from the IRPP or the C.D. Howe Institute as such.

William Watson: In your opinion, however, the solutions will come from government or pressure groups…

Claude Ryan: It’s fine to publish opinions that include proposals for solutions. But if the Institute made too many recommendations of its own, it would lose much of its authority.

William Watson: Then think-tanks have more of a public role. Their function isn’t to work with governments but to stimulate discussion between public- and private-sector decision-makers, researchers, pressure groups and the media, as much as possible on the basis of original research.

Claude Ryan: And to publish work that will attract the attention of gov- ernments. I’ll give you an example: the work by Pierre Lefebvre and Philip Merrigan on family policy in Quebec. The Institute was the first to use these researchers " several years ago. At the time their work had scarcely any influence on government policy, but it has been very useful to me when I’ve been writing about related subjects. They brought data to light that couldn’t be found anywhere else. It was largely the support of the IRPP that allowed this work to be disseminated widely. I think that was very important.

William Watson: How have things changed since you first entered political life? There weren’t many think-tanks then.

Claude Ryan: No, there weren’t any. They’re a new element that has been added. This kind of organization is absolutely essential in Canada, given the important function that this kind of institution serves in the developed countries " or more developed countries " like the United States. England has several such organizations too. I subscribe to the services of the Brookings Institution in the United States. I regularly send for things from Brookings, and I have the highest opinion of their work. But we needed this kind of organization in Canada too. You can’t depend entirely on American, British or French sources. That’s why I think it was excellent that at the beginning the federal government provided the capital for the creation of the IRPP.

As for the future, I don’t think we can afford many institutions of that kind. It would be better to give the existing ones the resources they need. Everything will depend on the quality of leadership. The quality of intellectu- al leadership is extremely important. Obviously, every leader has his or her own kind of charisma. There are lead- ers who can attract people without imposing ideas themselves. There are others who attract people with the quality of their ideas. It varies. But the essential thing is that the existing research institutes " I’m thinking particularly of the IRPP " remain as forums where people with different points of view will feel welcome. And also that they continue to produce high-quality work that will be respected.

William Watson: What’s the proper relationship between governments and think-tanks? Should these institutions be supported mainly by public or by private resources?

Claude Ryan: Think-tanks should be supported mainly by the private sector. In the case of an organization like the IRPP, I would hope that it manages to find financing primarily from the private sector, not just from the big corporations but also from the trade union movement, the co-op movement and various non-profit organizations. But I would hope that the financing comes mainly from the private sector. As far as government research contracts are concerned, I have no strong opinion. They may be good, but they may also be dangerous. I have no objection in principle to governments commissioning research from think-tanks. But in general there shouldn’t be too many government contracts, because in the long run they could influence the policies of the institution.

William Watson: Are there any subjects you would like to see researched in the future? I don’t mean by the IRPP, but by think-tanks in general.

Claude Ryan: Yes, there’s a question about languages. For decades we’ve been talking about second-language learning. But we still know hardly anything more about it than before. I’ve always deplored the lack of serious research on this question. That’s an area where an organization like the IRPP could make an original contribu- tion by sponsoring research or, in some cases, even undertaking its own research.

William Watson: To conclude, have you any final remarks for the IRPP?

Claude Ryan: I’m happy that the IRPP has reached its 30th anniversary. The IRPP is very important to the intel- lectual life of Canada, especially as a meeting place for members of the two main cultures. I hope it will continue in that role while remaining above party politics.