Societal Trends

Notes for Remarks to Carleton University 2017 Convocation – June 15, 2017

Mr. Chancellor, Chair of the Board, Madam President, Graduates, Honoured Guests and Proud Parents …. This is an honour…. but also a little sad for me because I can’t help but think of my father, on his deathbed, asking me … “So, when are you going to finish your Phd?”

He had good reason to ask because he knew that ever since I was 13, all I wanted to be was a University professor. At 22, I arrived at Carleton with that goal firmly in mind, but for a variety of reasons, I got sucked into the vortex of Parliament Hill, and, to my great regret, never finished my Phd.

So today, I can finally say, ‘Dad, I got my Doctorate.’ I’m sure if he’s looking down this morning, he’s feeling pretty happy right now. So, thank you for that, Carleton.

The larger reason my Dad hectored me about finishing my PhD, is that he, like most parents of his generation, believed in education – something most did not have the luxury of pursuing themselves.

In 1905, from his small cubicle in a patent office in Zurich, Albert Einstein issues four papers that forever change our understanding of theoretical physics and the functioning of the cosmos. In the same year, Henri Matisse launches an exhibition of garish colours that shocks Paris and spurs Pablo Picasso to move into cubism. Meanwhile, sent by the Royal Geographic Society, Robert Falcon Scott sets off to explore the most remote and formidable corner of the planet – Antarctica.

It was called a “miracle year;” but in many ways, these world-altering feats did not happen miraculously, but as part of a pattern that has been repeated throughout modern history.

A few years ago, as part of my TV Ontario program, I interviewed Naomi Klein and I asked her how it could be that her contemporaries and generation, who were so obviously connected to the world they lived in, showed no interest – in fact actively eschewed –politics, parties and parliament. Her answer rocked me on my heels. She replied that in her entire adult life, she could not think of one, single initiative that had emanated from government for which she was proud.

My generation associated government with grand initiatives of national enterprise — adopting Medicare, introducing pension and income security reform, repatriating the constitution and enshrining a Charter of Rights and Freedoms or debating the possibilities of guaranteed annual income or using tri-partism to vitalize democracy.

I realized that her generation had no such touchstones and therefore no frame of reference to consider government as our central agent of societal advancement. And they had no such frame of reference not because they were disinterested, anomic slackers, but because there weren’t any.

Right there and then, it dawned on me that public cynicism towards politics and politicians may actually be rational.…that the population has been persuaded that government is bad because for a generation we have been receiving bad government. That by lowering their performance to correspond to the public’s cynical expectations, we have offered ample and concrete evidence that governments are unable (or, as I will argue later, unwilling) to be productive agents of the public good.


There is a general consensus that Canada has a productivity gap. Yet the issue refuses to capture the public’s imagination or to take a higher priority on the nation’s political agenda. Claims that the sky is falling run contrary to public confidence that the economy is buoyant and resilient. At the same time, there is a widespread view that while prosperity is abundant, it is shared unequally and that in the face of unprecedented growth, the same advocates of productivity stand idly by and allow our social safety net – our health care, education and quality of life in our cities – to unravel.

For most people, increasing productivity involves little more than working harder or personal sacrifice. The perceived beneficiary to increased productivity is business, and therefore it hardly seems like a fair bargain or worthy of pursuit. Even those in government who might recognize that dealing with productivity is good policy are loath to advance the topic with any vigour.

I have moderated Microsoft Canada’s CAN>WIN conference on this topic four times since 2001 and watched some of Canada’s and the world’s brightest minds work their way through this dilemma. The consensus solutions to Canada’s prosperity problem are at once simple and deceptively complex.

Originally appeared in March 2006 Walrus Magazine

Under the cover of normalcy, on July 7, 2005, the heart of London was bombed and dozens of people were killed by young Muslim men who had grown up in the same environment as their victims. The process of acculturation – at British schools, and, one presumed, local pubs or Soho restaurants – had failed, and Britons were left to wonder how a cluster of radicals dedicated to terrorism and to distant ideologies could grow out of the soil we all share.

In another sign that all is not well in our diverse cities, four months later the outskirts of Paris erupted in spontaneous violence. On the night of October 27th, French police chased a group of teenagers who had ventured out of their Arab neighbourhood into the leafy suburbs of Livey-Garzan. Two of them were electrocuted while attempting to hide in a power generation facility, and within twenty-four hours this tragic accident turned the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois (and adjacent communities) into a cauldron of violence. In a scene reminiscent of Detroit or Los Angeles during the 1960s race riots, over 9,000 cars and 200 buildings were torched and France has been on edge ever since. An orchestrated attack by a terrorist cabal had besieged London, but in France something equally ominous had occurred: entire neighbourhoods comprised of poor and alienated immigrants protested their sense of isolation through wanton destruction.

Then, six weeks after the French riots, half-way around the world roughly 5,000 white Australians took to the beaches of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, to attack people of Middle-Eastern origin locally referred to as “sand niggers.” Organized through text messaging and the Internet, this was a planned assault by aggrieved whites demanding, essentially, a return to Australia’s “whites only” immigration policy. The country had abandoned this openly racist approach to immigration in 1973 and today, together with Canada, Australia has the most aggressive per capita immigration targets in the world. Indeed, prior to last November’s outbreak of sectarian violence it also had a growing international reputation for peaceful integration. The thugs who descended on Cronulla, obviously, did not endorse this national self-image.

Churches across Canada are flush with born-again converts, and awakening from a long political slumber. Why the Canadian left needs to duft off its Bible.

Lately, the forces of organized Christianity have been throwing their weight around in the political arena. Both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have been threatened from the pulpit with eternal damnation for supporting same-sex marriage. Other MPs have suffered more than mere threats,finding themselves cast out of their parishes. In early summer, headlines announced that Christian activists were capturing Conservative party nominations on both coasts and singled out a Presbyterian minister, Tristan Emmanuel, for recommending “Christian, pro-family people” as preferred candidates to his audiences. Emmanuel, the founder of the Equipping Christians for the Public Square Centre in southern Ontario, travels across Canada to spread the message that Jesus commands Christians to be politically engaged. These developments in Christian circles (to say nothing of those within other faiths) have many voters and pundits calling for reinforcements to the “great wall” separating church and state.

Christianity’s new ascendancy is a broad North American phenomenon, and anyone keeping score would have to conclude that, increasingly, the religious are thumping the secularists. In the United States, born-again President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 — at least in part — by setting out to register four million new evangelical Christian voters. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, derided by mainstream critics as everything from unwatchable to anti-Semitic, pulled in $370 million at the box office, the same total as Spider-Man 2. Author Rick Warren ’s quasi-evangelical The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? has racked up sales of more than 20 million copies worldwide and almost one million in Canada — though it was not even acknowledged on most bestseller lists.

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By now, we’ve been pretty much terrorized by the demographers’ prophesies of the coming apocalypse of an aging society. The health-care system will collapse under the weight of geriatric care. The actuarial basis of the Canada Pension Plan is threatened. Statistics Canada warns of manpower shortages within 15 years, when the tail end of the baby-boom bulge exits the labour force.

All these scenarios are possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re probable. Indeed, to accept such straight-line projections as inevitable or the forces of demography as immutable leads to a faulty assessment of the future and blinds us to alternative possibilities that may be more in keeping with the future we want.

Fortunately, history shows that society does not evolve in the linear fashion that demography may suggest. Based on population projections alone, our universities should have been wanting for students since the late 1980s, when the last of the big generation graduated. Instead, post-secondary institutions are bursting at the seams and only high-school grads with top grades are admitted to their school of choice. What happened? The value we, as a society, place on university education increased and participation rates skyrocketed, more than offsetting the declining numbers of eligible, university-aged students.

Even more than hindsight, common sense tells us the unidimensional perspective of demographic analysis alone provides an incomplete, often distorted picture of our future. To leap from predicting an aging population — which is indisputable — to the conclusion that society will be exactly as it is today except with more old people would be simplistic and illogical. Already, the baby boomers have transformed society in ways no demographer could have predicted 40 years ago.