Editor's letter: The Canada we want

Nobody wanted this economic crisis. But Canada at least has a chance to make the best of it.

Nobody wanted it to happen this way, of course. Nobody was hoping that the world economy would shudder and creak as it has over the past year. Few were expecting it, either. But in every crisis, there is opportunity. And for Canadians, the events of the past 18 months have created historic opportunities to pave a new and more dynamic path for this country. As we detail in our pages this week, it is critically important that we grasp them.

Guest columnist Andrea Mandel-Campbell knows as much as anyone about the challenges inherent in the Canadian brand identity. In her excellent 2007 book, Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson: Rescuing Canadian Business from the Suds of Global Obscurity, she described in painful detail how we Canadians are often too conservative and too self-deprecating to capitalize on our national advantages. But, as she points out, Canada has come through this economic crisis in relatively robust health. Our recession promises to be shallower and briefer compared with many others’; our banking sector remains one of the world’s best capitalized. Add those factors to this country’s staggering wealth of natural resources and you have all the makings of an economic ascension, and a chance for Canada to finally make its voice heard on the world stage. Now, it’s true that our advantageous position was created more by luck than by any sort of visionary leadership, but that is really beside the point. Not since the end of the Second World War have we projected this kind of credibility on the international stage. The time is right to make some positive noise.

Much the same can be said for our domestic state of affairs. As our Canada in 2020 special package details, we’re in an enviable position compared to other developed countries. We are energy rich. We have strong and historic trade ties. And we have an excellent record of educational achievement. When it comes to building the prosperous nation we aspire to, these are tremendous assets.

But there are gaps in our profile. We have a rapidly aging workforce. We have done a poor job of promoting the integration and success of immigrant communities and gifted children in our schools. And we still lack a cohesive national plan to develop and promote our high-tech sectors. These are just a few examples of the areas that threaten to gradually erode the health of our economy and our society. The good news, again, is that circumstances have conspired to afford us an opening to address these shortcomings.

Many of our competitor nations — countries that vie with Canada for skilled workers and sources of international capital — are now licking their wounds and suffering a devastating hangover from the financial crisis. It will take many of those countries years to recover. Canada did not escape entirely unscathed, but we are fortunate in that we are able to focus on the long-term goals of building a more prosperous nation, rather than focusing only on the short-term repair of economic damage. While other countries wonder how they will stop waves of home foreclosures, how they’ll rebuild their financial institutions, and how they will fund health-care reform, Canada is free to plot a course toward a stronger, smarter future. The only question is whether we have the foresight and the will to make it happen.

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promises that the government has the discipline to rebalance the books within a decade. That’s reassuring, but it’s even more important that government focus on spending those deficit dollars wisely — on programs that will build a stronger economy in the future, rather than shoring up faded industries for short-term political gain.

Nobody wanted this crisis. But Canada at least has a chance to make the best of it. How we use this chance will be the defining story of the decade ahead.