MISC's new chief

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McGill Reporter
June 7, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 17
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MISC's new chief

It will be a little strange at first imagining the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada without Desmond Morton as its head.

Photo Professor Antonia Maioni
PHOTO: Owen Egan

With Morton at the helm, the seven-year-old institute has managed to firmly position itself as an important and unique player in the field of Canadian studies.

MISC's conferences on subjects as diverse as the teaching of Canadian history, the ramifications of the free trade agreement and the future of social democracy have garnered headlines in papers across the country and attracted some of the biggest names in politics and academe to McGill.

When The New York Times or The Washington Post wanted a pithy quote on just about anything going on north of the border, be it Pierre Trudeau's legacy or the sale of the storied Montreal Canadiens to an American buyer, chances are Morton's number was at the top of their Rolodex.

It's no wonder that Morton's successor, political science professor Antonia Maioni, is entering into her new job with mild apprehension. "I would much rather be the person succeeding the person who succeeded Desmond," Maioni says. "He had phenomenal success in putting the institute on the map."

The selection committee charged with finding Morton's replacement had little hesitation in settling on Maioni and it wasn't for a shortage of interesting candidates. Some fairly prominent Canadian scholars were interested in the job and gave guest lectures at McGill to showcase their talents.

Maioni was singled out last fall as one of McGill's rising young stars when she was named a William Dawson scholar.

An adjunct professor at the Université de Montréal, Maioni has been a visiting scholar at Harvard's Centre for European Studies and a visiting professor at Duke University's North American Studies Program.

Her recent book, Parting at the Crossroads: The Emergence of Health Insurance in the United States and Canada, looked at the development of health insurance in the U.S. and Canada and the reasons why the two systems are currently so different.

Maioni says her primary interests relate to comparative politics and that will colour her approach to heading the institute. "I look at Canada as a research puzzle," she says. In some respects, Canada is very similar to the U.S. and to European countries, but in other respects it's very different. "What's the explanation behind the similarities and differences? Why did we emerge the way we did?

"I want to bring together and attract scholars who are interested in using Canada as a case study for whatever it is that they are studying."

Maioni has some ideas about where she hopes to lead the institute.

"I'm interested in expanding [MISC's] international focus a little bit." She envisages partnerships with other top Canadian studies or North American studies programs. Linkages with research centres with somewhat different mandates are another possibility -- maybe a collaboration with a European studies centre on a conference that touches on both Canadian and European themes.

"I would like to see the research agenda become a little more focused in the years to come, building on the strengths of the people associated with the institute. I want to try to identify two or three areas where the institute can really become a research hothouse."

While no final decisions have been made on that front, possibilities include health care, the teaching of Canadian history and Quebec/Canada relations.

Health care continues to be a driving concern for Maioni -- and for about 30 million other Canadians. With former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow set to begin his Royal Commission on the topic, Maioni's current research will examine the possible directions the country might take in the future.

"I want to examine the political sustainability of the existing health care model. I'm interested in the different pressures on the system and in the political responses we can expect to see in the months to come." Will user fees and creeping privatization imperil the single-payer health care model?

Maioni gives Quebec's recent Clair Commission Report on the province's health care system mixed reviews. She thinks the report raised many important issues, such as the dangers inherent in the declining morale of health care practitioners. But she worries that the Clair report comes too close to suggesting that the private sector should play a greater role in health care.

"It's a little like opening Pandora's box. Those kinds of public/private sector partnerships sometimes have unintended consequences. Health care has become a big industry in the U.S. and I think we should be careful about extending the boundaries here. The U.S. example shows us that it's very hard to regulate industries [that become involved in health care]."

Not surprisingly, MISC's first major conference under Maioni's leadership, scheduled for next February, will relate to health care. Michel Clair is expected to take part, as is Dr. Duncan Sinclair, the chair of Ontario's Health Services Restructuring Commission.

As for Morton, he'll be teaching a full course load in the Department of History next fall and turning his attention to some book projects. One will examine the lives of women married to members of the Canadian military. Other topics to be pursued include the prospects for the political left in Canada and an examination of Canada's defence policy -- or lack thereof. Morton has been scornful of Canada's commitment to global peacekeeping in spite of the fact that troops often don't have the resources, equipment or clear marching orders they need to do the job properly.

MISC was founded in 1994 thanks to a $10 million gift from Charles Bronfman and his family. Its goals were to produce new insights into Canadian issues and to promote understanding and solutions to social, political and economic problems facing the country.

It's work that MISC will carry on.

"I think we have a leadership role to play," says Maioni. "Part of that relates to the quality of the University. Part of it has to do with the fact that Montreal is a unique place in this country. In the field of Canadian studies, our voice is really important."

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