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York University
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Public Institutions and Canada’s Future – The First Conference of Glendon’s School of Public Affairs


Glendon’s new School of Public Affairs has opened its doors with its first major public conference on April 3rd and 4th. Turning the spotlight on Canada’s public institutions was directly in line with the School’s mandate of preparing future leaders and high-level public servants in a bilingual environment.

The conference was hosted by Glendon principal Kenneth McRoberts, who is also the acting director of the School of Public Affairs. The two-day event welcomed some of the most prominent participants in Canadian public institutions, such as Ruth Dantzer, president and CEO, Canada School of Public Service; Chaviva Hošek, president and CEO, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; Mel Cappe, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy; André Dulude, assistant deputy minister, Policy, Partnerships and Corporate Affairs; and Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser. Journalists such as Chantal Hébert of The Toronto Star, André Pratte of La Presse and Paul Wells of Maclean’s Magazine also participated in the discussion, joined by several of the new School’s faculty members (for a complete list of participants please view the website of the Glendon School of Public Affairs). Several of the panelists are also serving on the School of Public Affairs’ Advisory Board. The sessions were conducted in English, French, or a combination of both, with simultaneous interpretation provided.

L-r: Kenneth McRoberts, Alexander Himelfarb, John Manley and Mamdouh Shoukri

The focus of the conference on Canada’s public institutions and Canada’s future elicited some impassioned criticisms of the status quo, as well as praise for Canada and its place in the world. The five panel discussions examined the competence and capacity of these organizations, offered a glimpse of the Public Service Commission of the future, reviewed Canada’s role in promoting multilateralism and human rights, and discussed whether Canada needs a new federation.

The main themes that emerged during these discussions were an overall concern that Canada’s public institutions are too rigid and inadequately staffed to deal successfully with the complex issues of today and tomorrow. An unreasonably lengthy hiring process into the public service, and a general neglect of newly hired talent result in the best minds of the current generation seeking rewarding jobs elsewhere.

“Public institutions are handling increasingly more complex problems and need well-trained staff for the challenges of the future, such as climate change, demographics, water and food supplies, public security and others”, said Chaviva Hošek. These issues require the modernization of organizations such as the RCMP, the coroner’s office, and the criminal justice system. Roger Gibbins, president and CEO, Canada West Foundation commented that a national-level policy coordination on climate change, the country’s economic union, energy and other important concerns was imperative.

Ian Macdonald, president emeritus of York University considered it ill-advised and inappropriate for the public service to turn to the private sector for a corporate model. “Government services are fundamental”, said Macdonald. “They should not strive to be profitable or business-like. Governments must be careful about the role models they follow, and focus on good governance, accountability, social sensibility and alertness.”

L-r: Ian Macdonald, Chaviva Hošek, Roger Gibbins,Michel Dorais and Ruth Dantzer

With 70% of all new jobs occurring in skilled occupations by 2015, major investment in skills training and a more streamlined immigration policy were declared necessary, if Canada is to successfully compete locally and on the world market. “Easier, faster access to government services, and a streamlined, integrated service delivery with better accountability and additional resources are required for greater user satisfaction and a more positive view of government”, said Joan Andrew (Glendon BA 1972), who is Ontario’s deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

Panelists expressed their concern that Canada’s historic participation in multilateral peace-keeping, aid, human security, health and the protection of human rights has been severely impacted by a number of factors. New security threats following 9/11, budget cuts and a global trend towards conservatism have resulted in this country’s focus shifting to its own security, sovereignty and environmental protection. Re-engaging today’s youth, which is disinterested and disenchanted by public institutions, was viewed as a serious challenge. “Among young, public-minded, entrepreneurial people, development is a major draw”, said Glendon political science professor Willem Maas. “But private institutions, such as non-governmental organizations [NGOs] and foundations have garnered the powers and status abandoned by public institutions. With Canada’s comparative advantage in public health, education, the legal system and governance, our objective should be to find ways to bring prosperity to poor countries. But we are not spending enough money to really make a difference.”

Left: Chaviva Hošek and Kenneth McRoberts

Internationally, Canada has worked tirelessly in UN peace-keeping and in establishing doctrines and responsibilities related to human rights. However, ongoing budget cuts in external affairs are seriously impacting on this country’s ability to make a difference in this area. Setting a good example at home, with the world watching, was deemed to be one effective way of promoting human rights on the international scene. A need for well-trained, top-caliber policy analysts, with the ability to advise politicians effectively and rapidly was considered an important area for government investment.

On the topic of a new Canadian federation, there was a general consensus that as long as it is able to adapt to constantly changing contexts and parameters, the current format serves us well. “Federalism is still the answer”, said La Presse columnist André Pratte. “It is a dynamic, modern, flexible system. But [within this political system] we need to enable all the factions to work together, while respecting their differences. We need a new understanding of what a federation is and a new definition of how Quebeckers view Canada and the confederation.” Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells commented on the need for federal structural definitions, without which the federal process can become haphazard and contradictory. “One of the ways to strengthen our sense of country and nation is to have a better understanding of our history and the great country we live in – one that other people in other parts of the world hold up as a model and a dream”, said Wells.

L-r: Paul Wells, André Pratte, Kenneth McRoberts, Chantal Hébert and Graham Fraser

During the conference’s closing lunch, attended by York University president Mamdouh Shoukri, former deputy prime minister and former federal minister of finance John Manley delivered the keynote address on the changing nature of Canada’s public institutions. Manley was introduced by Alexander Himelfarb, Canadian ambassador to Italy and chair of the School of Public Affair's Advisory Committee.

Manley expressed his belief in the role of government and his respect for individuals who take on responsibilities in the public domain. “There is a growing distrust of the state which is dangerous; it is the first step in a nation’s demise”, warned Manley. He emphasized the need to build a new institutional paradigm that is flexible, intelligent, innovative and international, one that will attract the best and brightest of the current generation into public service. “We need a government that focuses on sustainable growth, shared prosperity and human rights,” said Manley. “Our government must collaborate with other nations, true to Canada’s history of openness to the world.” He concluded by thanking the students of the new School for their interest in public affairs. “The students joining this new School of Public Affairs will have the opportunity to acquire the skills which will enable them to serve the best interests of their country”, said Manley.

Right: Edgar Bartolome and parents

Several students, registered for next fall’s session in the School, attended the conference. “When I learned about this new, innovative program, I was hooked”, said Edgar Bartolome, holder of a BA in French and Linguistics, and a Certificate in International Studies from Queen’s University (Kingston). Fully bilingual, Bartolome was among the first to be admitted for next September’s opening semester. He travelled with his parents from Ottawa to the conference, in order to experience first-hand the environment and the vitality of this new program. “I want to be part of this new beginning and to study among talented, bright students. My future plans are to work in the Foreign Service and I hope to acquire the best preparation for this career here at Glendon”, said Bartolome.

There were numerous comments during the conference acknowledging the value and significance of the new bilingual graduate School of Public Affairs at Glendon, which will provide a forum for essential discussions and a training ground for specialized skills for the next generation of politicians and top public servants. “…This conference represents the beginning of something really important, and the true launching of the School “, said Glendon political science professor Ian Roberge.

Article by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on April 10, 2008