You can’t move out of a country for more than a dozen years and not expect big changes upon your return. Canada is clearly a different place than it was at the millennium when I left: sobered by a long war, a bit smug at how it came through the 2008 financial crisis, jittery about economic turbulence that has not abated. The political thunder that could be heard rumbling in from the West in the 1990s has arrived in power, flexing economic and political muscles that are upending the progressive state model built by Laurentian Canada (with an assist from prairie socialism). In the detritus is an Ontario struggling to find its feet, and a Quebec that appears not so much hostile to the rest of the country as indifferent.
It is also a Canada that has retreated internationally, with a diminished voice and an unnerving lack of self-awareness about that decline. It was a fade that could be easily viewed from Europe, Asia and the United States, where the question frequently posed to a Canadian was “Where have you gone?” Canada is not the only country where public debate is leaning inward. But insularity carries grave risks for a midsized, trade-dependent country in a more connected, competitive world.
The challenges we face may have Canadian characteristics, but they are driven by global currents — political, economic, strategic, environmental and intellectual — and it is essential to engage with those forces. That is the point economist Martin Coiteux makes in his piece in our pages this month, noting that the increasing consensus to the European sovereign debt crisis will be found in the form of federal union that Quebec already enjoys within Canada. But the effects of parochialism are nationwide. In September, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives convened a welcome conference, “Canada in the Pacific Century,” which revealed we have yet to fully grasp how Asia’s rise poses an earth-shaking challenge to the postwar economic and security order that was so kind to Canada. We should be further down the Asian road than that.
But while we have yet to come up with a collective Canadian narrative for this reconfigured world order, a short search finds an abundance of Canadians immersed in trying to write it. They know that its grammar is rooted in ideas, not ideology. They understand that the digital revolution is threatening traditional political hierarchies, and that the promise of the knowledge economy has also changed the prospects of low-skilled workers. They know that failing to grapple with increasing inequality will possibly have historic implications for a middle class that has been the bedrock of capitalism and democracy, and that those who want to preserve the compassion of Tommy Douglas’s Canada must also find a new economic model to underwrite it.
Governments all face variations on the same challenge: How, in a global economy weakened by widespread sovereign debt and amid the politics of austerity, can they deliver the services their citizens still demand? In an article for Foreign Affairs last January, historian Francis Fukuyama outlined the failure of the ideologies born in the 19th century to deal with the problems of the 21st, and urged a rethinking of politics to save democracy. “Imagine an obscure scribbler today in a garret somewhere trying to outline an ideology of the future that could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies,” he wrote. “What would that ideology look like?”
Policy Options will be the magazine for the dispersed but important crowd that is sketching that road map. It will seek out the new voices in government and universities, NGOs, science labs and business, and uncover policies and politics built on data and analytics. It will be a platform for innovation wherever it flourishes, and a megaphone for home-grown ideas that have something to say to the world. As Jonathan Stray, a Canadian computer scientist who is at the vanguard of data-driven journalism that is capable of explaining the complex systems that rule us, says: “The public interest is in dire need of geeks who are not on the payroll.”
Above all, Policy Options will put the emphasis on solutions. Other media handle the predictable give-and-take of partisan warfare well enough. But for too many of us now, public debate suffers from these silos of thought, where narrow interests fire mortars at their opponents across an intellectual wasteland where no one dares to walk. Most of us are open to any solution that works. We don’t want to wring our hands over a problem; we want the prescription to solve it. Policy Options will look for the ideas to seed that wasteland, to see if something good will grow.