Fresh thinking outside government

Posted on March 12, 2008 in Education Debates, Inclusion Debates – comment – Fresh thinking outside government
March 12, 2008
Carol Goar

When Gerard Kennedy was 23 and brimming with confidence, he took a stand he considered risky and politically sophisticated.

The Edmonton Food Bank, which he had just opened, was hit with twin crises. First the price of oil plummeted, throwing many Albertans out of work. Then the government cut welfare rates.

Kennedy sent an impassioned letter to the Ministry of Family and Social Services, outlining the human damage the cutback would do.

He received a surprising reply, an offer to pay for a new van so the food bank could collect and distribute more food.

Tempting as the proposition was, Kennedy ignored it. He organized a mass lobby of Albertans who couldn’t afford groceries. They inundated legislators with stories of family hardship. Eventually the government restored welfare rates to their previous level.

Kennedy – who went on to become Ontario’s education minister, then played kingmaker in the 2006 federal Liberal leadership race – wishes, with hindsight, that he’d been smarter.

He got it half-right, he says. He knew enough to resist a bad deal. What he didn’t do was put forward a better alternative.

“I kept telling the government about the problem and waiting for it to come up with the solution. It wasn’t until I was a minister that I realized that the desk is piled high with problems and there isn’t much in the solution basket.”

Kennedy, now 47, used the anecdote as the basis of a lecture he delivered at Ryerson University last week. He called on Canadians to become problem solvers, to take the initiative, to move beyond mere survival.

He was speaking in his new – albeit temporary – capacity as a visiting professor in the School of Management. For the past six months he’s been out of sight, thinking about Canada’s future, his priorities as a politician (he is running in Parkdale-High Park in the next election) and Ryerson’s role in sparking change.

The speech was Kennedy’s first public presentation of his ideas. It was a bit woolly, but compared to the vacuous sniping going on in Ottawa, it offered both intellectual sustenance and hope.

The way Kennedy sees it, Canada is still stuck in the deficit-cutting mentality of the 1980s and ’90s. Governments continue to shed responsibilities. Businesses are loath to take risks. Social agencies have become timid and utilitarian.

“We’ve lost some of our ambition and compassion. We no longer celebrate initiative. We’ve become so preoccupied with coping that we haven’t had time for creativity.”

The antidote, Kennedy says, is to use the talent we’re wasting, test the ideas we’re stifling and reclaim our tradition as a nation that develops its own solutions to social and economic problems.

“We were smart enough to open ourselves to successive waves of immigration. We handled linguistic duality. We built a national railway. We created medicare. These came from a certain sense of daring and collective enterprise. We need to bring that to issues such as climate change, an aging population and poverty.”

Universities are a logical place to start, Kennedy said. Rather than training students to meet course requirements and solve theoretical problems, educators have to encourage fresh thinking and welcome bold ideas.

Social agencies have plenty of untapped potential, he said. They need to break free of stultifying directives and onerous paperwork governments have imposed on them in the last 20 years and do what they do best: solve human problems in practical and innovative ways.

Businesses need to become more ambitious too, Kennedy argued. Too many corporate leaders focus solely on producing an acceptable return for shareholders, overlooking the talent in their ranks and blocking the ideas that could lead to global success.

Kennedy ended the lecture by inviting those who share his views to join a new coalition called the Canadian Enterprising Network.

How he will carry this into his political career remains unclear. But his confidence was infectious and his agenda – even in its preliminary form – offered a glimmer of a prouder, more resilient Canada.

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