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A strategic moment for Canada

This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in the Globe & Mail on July 21, 2016.

At a time when the world is riven by sectarian conflict, violence, and intolerance, Canada is emerging as a beacon of stability, openness, tolerance and inclusion. While the turbulence abroad poses significant threats globally, we stand to benefit if we play our cards right. That is the conclusion I reached after a week visiting the United Kingdom, meeting with alumni and academic colleagues in Greater London.

My travels coincided with a week that saw Britain get a new prime minister after the Brexit vote, the tragic events in Nice, France, and an attempted military coup in Turkey. My conversations with leaders from business, finance, academia and government revealed deep-seated uncertainty about the future prosperity of London and Britain. Many recognized that this prosperity had rested on London’s success in attracting talented and energetic newcomers, and putting them to work. This was as true for highly educated professionals as for skilled trades and service workers.

This prosperity also relied upon London’s status as a world financial and economic capital, fuelled by its privileged access to European markets. Political stability, a buoyant property market, and stable macroeconomic management attracted capital from around the world. This created a circle of growth that encouraged further waves of incoming talent, capital and ideas.

With Britain facing an extended period of uncertainty, the value of housing, commercial properties and businesses is suddenly unclear, and major investment decisions of every sort are being postponed. Business leaders are already hedging their bets, planning investments in other economic capitals of Europe now that long-term privileged access to European markets is no longer guaranteed.

Perhaps the most profound impact will be in the shifting international flows of talented professionals, artists, skilled trades, students and others seeking economic opportunity. To many, the vote to leave the European Union was a statement against immigration. Potential newcomers will feel less welcome. For London and other British cities, access to educated, experienced and skilled labour will be undermined. British universities are already facing new uncertainty about access to research funding from the EU, currently responsible for as much as 40 per cent of their external grants. And the schools are understandably worried about the effect this could have on their ability to attract and retain the best faculty and attract top students from Europe and beyond.

What does this mean for Canada? The consensus from London can be summed up in one word: opportunity. Canada is seen as an increasingly rare bright light on the world stage. Our decision to bring in 25,000 Syrian immigrants is a powerful symbol of our welcoming attitude and a reminder of our success in creating some of the world’s most multicultural cities. The recent federal election, and the orderly leadership transition that ensued, demonstrated the strength and stability of our democratic institutions. Our commitment to investments in public infrastructure by all governments stands in stark contrast to the ethos of austerity shaping policies in other countries.

How do we ensure that Canada takes full advantage of such a moment? By continuing to invest in key public institutions to foster inclusion, access and opportunity; in particular, public education at all levels. By doubling down on investments in infrastructure such as public transportation, to help our cities reach their full potential. And by ensuring that our immigration system is optimized to welcome newcomers keen to bring their many talents to this remarkable country.

There may be further opportunities for the private and not-for-profit sectors. And Toronto and Canada could capture a greater share of financial-services activity and attract investments looking for a new home. Now is the time to ask what else we should do to become an even more attractive creative centre. How can our private sector recruit top talent? Our arts communities? Our universities?

With the world facing greater unrest and uncertainty, this could be Canada’s moment to shine. We need to think strategically about how best to capitalize on this opportunity.

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