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The Amazing Race

McGill is proud that some of our most gifted students come from Calgary and that this city is home to many distinguished McGill alumni. I’d like to tell you a short story that illustrates importance of leadership and the depth of the connections between McGill and Alberta.

In May of 1905, at a meeting of the McGill Graduates Society, Alexander Rutherford, soon to become premier of Alberta, met McGill professor Henry Marshall Tory. Tory was on his way back from setting up the McGill University College of British Columbia, now known as UBC.

Rutherford dreamed of founding a university in his province, and at that alumni gathering, the two McGill grads began the discussion that would see Tory become the founding president of the University of Alberta. Rutherford knew that Tory was a perfect fit for Alberta – entrepreneurial, visionary yet practical, and, extraordinarily hard working. Like Rutherford, Tory was a born leader with the drive to make things happen.

Over the two decades that Tory served as the University of Alberta’s president, he also established the Alberta Research Council and led in the creation of Canada’s National Research Council.

The Premier of Alberta had an eye for talent, and that talent helped build a new and critical component of Alberta’s economy.

The Amazing Race

And one of the most pressing challenges on the horizon for Canada is our ability to attract and retain top talent. To use a natural resources metaphor, Alberta is, in this regard, the canary in the coal mine. This is no surprise. When it comes to human capital, Albertans know better than anyone the frustration of having more “help wanted” signs than help. In fact, I’m heading over to the Encana towers this afternoon to help pour some more concrete….

Today, the crisis for skilled workers may centre around Alberta, but it is beginning to capture other provinces as well. The Conference Board of Canada predicts the shortage of workers in Quebec alone will surpass 363,000 over the next two decades. How Calgary addresses this “talent gap” will have implications for all of us across the entire nation.

Canada’s universities are playing a critical role in helping solve the talent shortage. But there is much more we can do, in fact much more we must do, to safeguard and enhance our quality of life.

I have called my presentation this morning “The Amazing Race” because Canada is engaged in:

  • a race for cutting-edge knowledge, a race to get the skilled workers we need;
  • a race to build the global networks that spark innovation and generate prosperity;
  • and, this race has gone global.
  • The world has entered what Robyn Meredith, author of The Elephant and the Dragon, describes as a new “global hyperconnectivity” – hyper-connected by knowledge, technology and talent.

Increasingly, prosperity is secured primarily through the acquisition and manipulation of knowledge. To have any hope of winning, we require an outstanding system of higher education, because it is the universities that can best capture and prepare the racers.

And the fact is, to succeed, we can’t just look for local solutions to local problems – we need to think nationally and internationally to achieve local success. We have to think about how to build our nation. No city can do it alone.

Even with the high rate of population growth in Calgary, in Edmonton and a few other major urban centres, Canada is and will be a small country competing with population giants. Greater Tokyo has a population of 37 million; our entire country has 32 million. And with India and China on the road to becoming dominant economic as well as population forces, we’re never going to win in a game of numbers. Thus, to succeed, Canada’s strategy cannot rest purely on size – the size of our population or the number of our university graduates - but rather on exceptional quality – the exceptional quality of our people, our ideas and our value-added designs, technologies, products and services.

For Canada, the dilemma is this:

  • Can a country of 32 million people compete and win in a world market of more than six-and-a-half billion?
  • Can we be leaders in this global competition, or will we be lost in the shuffle?
  • Can we advance the image of Canada worldwide while preserving our regional and national identities, or are we facing an unstoppable process of growing cultural conformity?

At the heart of globalization and our chances of competing successfully, rests a tension between the local and the global – and a fear perhaps, that we are losing something, while others half-way around the world may be gaining. The dynamics of globalization have changed the rules of the game. And this can be good or bad, depending on where you sit and how prepared you feel.

Here is what I believe:

  • Strong universities, with strategically targeted areas of outstanding research and teaching expertise, must be a cornerstone of our competitive strategy. Highly educated people, with the capacity and drive to innovate, are the key to prosperity.
  • In this new age, top research universities are among the most powerful forces. They attract financial, intellectual and creative resources from around the world. They provide the expertise and ideas to nourish the cultural and business clusters that push cities, regions and national economies and push them ahead on the world stage. • We need to optimize our national reputation, people and brand, as well as the reputation of our cities.
  • We are not going to generate transformative revenues or win gold medals or have the healthiest cities by making the same products and providing the same services as China and India. Only by creating something of distinctive value will we make our mark.

So how do we create a special competitive edge? Here are three elements vital to our social and economic success as cities, as provinces, as regions and as a nation; noting that each Canadian city requires that Canada itself has a strong reputation for optimal leveraging.

First we must Educate:
We must continue to build on Canada’s already strong and diverse system of higher education – so that it is unparalleled in its quality and reach – so that it not only meets today’s needs, but also fosters the innovative and critical thinking, and quality and diversity of talent that will equip us to anticipate and respond to tomorrow’s needs; no city or region can succeed on the basis of a single sector economy and a highly educated citizenry is the key to successful economic diversification.

Second we must Attract:
We must create an environment that will draw top talent from around the world, and one that will enable us to retain the brightest stars;

Third we must Connect:
We must leverage our universities and our top research talent into the elite international networks that will establish Canada with its key cities as a permanent, successful player on the global stage.

I would like to focus on these three words: Educate, Attract and Connect

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