Flipping through back copies of Policy Options from 1980, the year the magazine was founded, there’s a distinct feeling of déjà vu.

There are headlines such as,

“How Best to Live with the United States;”

“The Liberal Vacuum in the West;”

“Canada Needs to be Self-sufficient in Oil.”

The State of the Legislative Process in Canada”

“Since the election there has been more bemoaning than ever of the structural malformation of the Canadian body politics, with one main party rootless in Quebec and the other almost alien to Western Canada,” wrote founding editor-in-chief Tom Kent, the legendary public policy thinker and journalist, of the two main parties.

“What is worrisome is the strengthened fear that the fundamental reason why it seems unchangeable is that people in both those regions increasingly doubt whether federal politics matter much anyway.”

In 1980, as in 2020, the country was in a period of intergovernmental malaise and coming out of an election. The first referendum on Quebec sovereignty was held in May 1980. The notorious National Energy Program was inaugurated that year, and Pierre Trudeau, prime minister at the time, opened the 32nd Parliament with not a single Liberal MP from BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and only two in Manitoba.

By the fall of 1980, Trudeau had announced his intention to approach the United Kingdom unilaterally to seek the patriation of the Constitution – sparking more than a year of constitutional negotiations with premiers, and mobilizing Indigenous leaders to make sure their treaty and inherent rights were respected.

Photo: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau greets Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed at 24 Sussex Drive prior to the Constitutional Conference with Premiers and Trudeau, in Ottawa, on June 9, 1980. THE CANADIAN PRESS/UPC/Rod MacIvor

There is always something bizarrely comforting about spotting familiar patterns in Canada’s past: How many times do we hear the phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est pareil” in reference to our political history? Meanwhile, people who weren’t yet born during the years of the National Energy Program or The Night of Long Knives can reference those grievances and find the echoes in our contemporary frictions. Yes, old policy and political mistakes can cast long shadows.

But here’s the thing: Canada in 2020 is nothing like the Canada of 1980, and we should be careful not to use old maps to orient ourselves as we move into the next decade. Our country is more urban and suburban, more ethnoculturally diverse, and also getting proportionately older.

Susan Gibson, then with Ontario’s Status of Women Council, wrote in 1980 about the hiring and promotion of women in the public service that, “it is clear that substantive improvement in the status of women Crown employees still lies in the future.” At the time, Gibson said there were no women deputy ministers in Ontario, and only 1.38 percent in senior positions. By 2017, women accounted for 30.4 percent of Ontario deputy ministers and about half of other executive levels, according to an employee survey from that year.

Reading through those issues of Policy Options from 1980, a few things were notably absent.

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John F. Graham, the late Dalhousie University professor and economist, was the only person that year to discuss environmental concerns.

“We now…face the prospect in the not very distance future of very low, zero, or negative economic growth resulting from a combination of exhaustion of natural resources and suicidal environmental damage,” he wrote.

The impact of technology is referenced, but in the “boob tube” style of the 1980s – which was to bemoan the impact of television on Canadian public discourse. Who could have envisioned the way our lives and our economy would change with the advent of the smartphone, social media platforms and advancing artificial intelligence?

Indigenous rights and the Crown’s treaty obligations do not figure in the numerous articles about federalism and intergovernmental affairs. Although a vast amount of work remains to be done to fulfil the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to restore a true nation-to-nation relationship, decolonization was simply not a topic of policy conversation in non-Indigenous circles 40 years ago.

Plus ça change, well, ça change.

Yes, we are in another phase of discontent within the Canadian federation, but it is impossible to consider this time in Canadian history without also looking outside of our borders. Where the issues eloquently explored in this magazine in 1980 dealt principally with federal-provincial, industrial and Canada-US policy, almost all the challenges before us today have a global dimension.

While the federal government and the premiers tussle over carbon pricing and support for the energy sector, the overarching question is whether the world’s nations collectively will act quickly enough to curb the catastrophic rise in global temperatures. (The results of the COP 25 conference in Madrid last month bode poorly.)

The suitability of the equalization program and stabilization fund are on the First Ministers’ agenda, but the bigger picture about the Canadian economy hinges on the disruptive forces of automation, artificial intelligence and the impact of climate change down the road. As the federal government’s foresight agency Policy Horizons pointed out in a recent report, it’s unclear what skills workers will need in the future, and also how taxes will be collected as jobs becoming increasingly virtual.

Yes, Canada’s relationship with the United States remains a perpetual policy preoccupation, but now it is overlaid with concerns over how to fill the vacuum Washington has left in international multilateral institutions and counterbalance the growing influence of China.

Even when we talk about the health of our democracy, the future leadership of the Conservative Party, and other Canadian political issues, we have to consider the wider context of disinformation and borderless social media platforms, populist trends worldwide, and the microtargeting of voters through the use of their own data.

Over the next year, we will be re-publishing some of the articles that appeared in 1980, along with responses to the material from 2020. As the current editor-in-chief, I can’t help but wonder which issues just barely appearing on our radar now will be fundamentally shaping Canada in the years to come.

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Jennifer Ditchburn
Jennifer Ditchburn is the President and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. From 2016 to 2021, she was the Editor-in-Chief of the IRPP’s influential digital magazine, Policy Options. Prior to joining the IRPP, Jennifer spent two decades covering national and parliamentary affairs for The Canadian Press and for CBC Television. She is the co-editor with Graham Fox of The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy (McGill-Queen’s).

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