If you walk down the street and ask passersby “What is Canada’s biggest challenge?” you are likely to get as many answers as the number of people you ask: housing, inflation, homelessness, the cost of food, national security, wildfires, climate change … And if you asked how to solve those challenges, the responses will range from a helpless shrug to angry diatribes.
It is easy to focus on the extremes. We often forget the many sincere and honest efforts to respond to the challenges we face. To succeed, they require leadership, dedication and funding.
Few people ever point out that everything is interrelated. We forget that we are all responsible not only for our family and friends but for our country and the values for which we all stand.
Communities are the backbone of our nation. Time and again we see communities come together: people opening their homes and offering aid to the victims of catastrophic events, building dams against floods or planting trees in areas devastated by forest fire.
Communities welcome immigrants, and everyone is richer and wiser for the knowledge and traditions shared. Communities are also home to small businesses — the largest employers in the country with 8.2 million individuals or 67.7 percent of the total private labour force. Healthy communities offer safe, connected and clean environments, and they include businesses that are closely interwoven with residents, celebrating success and sponsoring the cultural and sporting activities that form part of their collective memories.
But one cannot simply pick a model community from a catalogue and replicate it. Each region is different. Its natural resources, geography, accessibility and the size and skills of its population offer a unique set of keys to successful growth and development.
Research that is taking place in universities, colleges and hospitals across the country underpins our ability to transform the economy and sustainably extract value from the wealth of natural resources surrounding us. It also provides necessary training for the next generation of highly skilled workers that will be required in many sectors in the future.
While our economy has fared quite well over the years, Canada is currently facing a decline in productivity. This can be addressed, in part, through investment in research by business and governments, coupled with an approach that not only encourages its commercialization but also recognizes its contribution to all areas of importance to Canadians.
As a resource-rich country, Canada has many of the critical minerals required today to support the technologies that will be at the core of tomorrow’s economy. There are untold riches buried beneath our feet. We have the opportunity to discover, extract and develop our mineral wealth, increasing its value to the economy, protecting the environment and providing employment for highly skilled workers.
In a recent article published in the Gaiko Forum — an online journal of Japanese perspective on diplomacy — Kanji Yamanouchi, Japanese Ambassador to Canada wrote that “Canada … boasts approximately 250% food self-sufficiency and 190% energy self-sufficiency while Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is 38% and energy rate is 13%.”
But Canadians do face a few challenges of our own. Our population is both aging and sparsely spread across the country. Labour costs are also generally higher in Canada than in other parts of the world. Therefore, to ensure our competitive edge, we need to invest in new methods and smart technologies so our smaller population can accomplish work of the highest quality and value.
Canada is in an enviable position and we must seize the opportunity presented by our great wealth and the potential we have to serve our communities and the world, and to prosper at the same time. Canada should be known not only as a country with immense natural resources but one with a wealth of ideas and talent.
Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a non-profit corporation that invests in research infrastructure at Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions. This article was originally published in the Hill Times Innovation issue on October 16, 2023.