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Advice from the classroom to the capital
It's probably a record, especially by Ottawa's standards, a town where government bureaucracies often seem designed to slow things down as much as possible.
Law professor Rod Macdonald started his job as president of the Law Commission of Canada on July 1, 1997, with one part-time secretary on loan from another federal department. Within two months, he had the office up and running.
"Since I was founding president, I had to do everything from buying pencils to hiring staff," he recalls. "I started the whole show from scratch."
Macdonald is exceptional in that he was so instrumental in setting up a federal agency, but he is far from alone when it comes to being a professor who has put his expertise at the service of his government.
Academics can make valuable contributions to government policy -- emeritus professor of law Paul-André Crépeau, for instance, was the chief architect of the revisions to the Quebec civil code. More recently, family medicine professor Dr. Howard Bergman was a member of the Clair Commission, which proposed major changes to the Quebec health care system, and last year presented its report to Quebec's health minister.
The mandate of the Law Commission is to make recommendations to the federal government for reforming Canadian law, including developing approaches to law to make it more efficient, responsive, accessible and just.
During Macdonald's three-year term -- he was on a leave of absence from McGill -- the commission tackled a number of topics, including the abuse of children in institutions (such as the case of the Duplessis Orphans) and the treaty process involving aboriginals in British Columbia.
Macdonald, a former dean of the Faculty of Law, wasn't daunted by the task of starting a commission from scratch. "I've done a lot of administrative jobs in my life," he says. "There are a great deal of similarities between being a dean and running an independent agency."
But that's where the similarities end. "As a professor, my ability to look at things, think things through and publish is largely unconstrained. As a public institution [on the commission] everything you say will be picked over, and under a form of scrutiny that is unforgiving." That meant being very careful about organizing consultations and publishing discussion papers before final reports were issued.
Consultations are something with which education professor Spencer Boudreau, director of the Office of Student Teaching, is familiar. He joined the Quebec Ministry of Education's Religious Affairs Committee last December. It advises education minister François Legault about the place of religion in Quebec's schools and has the power to approve the confessional aspects of the Catholic and Protestant religion programs.
He sees his work on the committee as an opportunity to contribute to government policy. Since proposals go directly to the minister and the 12-member committee has the power to approve the curriculum, Boudreau has no doubt the Religious Affairs Committee has the minister's ear.
"Whether the minister likes it or not, he would have to listen to our recommendations for changes because we could theoretically say, 'You don't have a program,'" Boudreau says. "We're in the driver's seat for the confessional aspects of the programs."
The University benefits from his presence at the table, Boudreau believes. The Loi sur l'instruction publique ll outlines that schools have to offer students a choice between Catholic, Protestant and moral education. These changes will have an impact on how teachers are trained. From his vantage point, Boudreau is able to advise the government of how proposed changes will actually affect the province's education faculties. "Sometimes we have to give people a reality check," Boudreau says.
"What you can bring back to the faculty is what will be expected of teachers in the near future," he adds.
Professor Peter Brown, director of McGill's School of Environment, agrees that the University benefits from his being a member of Environment Canada's Science and Technology Advisory Board, a group that supplies its take on issues to federal environment minister David Anderson and his staff.
Brown's experience on the board has reinforced his thinking about a program that he believes McGill should develop.
"The ministry is very much in need of people coming from a policy-oriented program," Brown says. "About 50 per cent of people from Environment Canada will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. Universities are producing mainly people who are specialists in a science and not specialized in thinking broadly about policy. We hope to develop a graduate program to address that."
Brown believes academics can bring knowledge to government committees, commissions and advisory boards. "People in bureaucracies don't have the leisure of studying detailed things like climate change or soil fertility. Our jobs are structured so that we can explore these issues," Brown says. "[Government] scientists have the knowledge but not the independence we have."
That's where academics have a role to play, Brown believes. "One of the reasons we have the tenure system in universities is to allow people to speak their minds without professional reprisals," he says.
"To speak simply, clearly and directly on matters is incumbent on professors. Everyone has that duty but with us it's stronger because we're protected."
Principal Bernard Shapiro, Ontario's deputy minister of education from 1986-1989, agrees that academics can contribute to government commissions by sharing knowledge and a different perspective.
"There's never enough knowledge inside government -- or any other institution -- to satisfy the need for informed public policy," he says. "So there is knowledge in the university which is sometimes not available inside government offices because they're not staffed that way."
He adds that the different perspective scholars bring comes from being in a different environment. "Everybody brings baggage with them," he says. As a civil servant and deputy minister, "it's clear I was influenced by the environment around me. The same is true of academics. It's just different. So it's like anything else -- it never hurts to seek a second opinion."
Shapiro cautions that it's impossible to know ahead of time to what extent the government will heed a commission and how quickly. "My view has always been that commission reports don't leap into history -- they seep into history because the problem, whether the government wishes to pay attention to it or not, doesn't go away."
Even government commissions set up for public relations reasons serve a purpose because they add to the body of knowledge on a topic, from which solutions can later be derived, he adds.
Law professor Marie-Claude Prémont, chaired the Comité de surveillance du projet vitrine carte santé.
Appointed by the provincial health minister, the committee's mandate was linked to a Laval project of using smart cards to share information between health care providers. It tackled the question of how this new way of information sharing can be consistent with protecting people's rights and freedoms.
Prémont says sitting on these commissions is an important part of participating in the democratic process. "Democracy is about more than voting every four or five years," she says. "These forums for debate are very important but at the same time no committee can claim to hold the truth. The democratic procedure has to continue in the sense that the government has to consider the issue. Whether [your report is] criticized or acclaimed isn't the point."
Her work on the committee will have an impact on her future agenda of research. "You learn about wider issues and have the chance of becoming a better academic because of that," she says. "I think this is a good opportunity to make the link between theory and practice and show new directions for research. For me, the best theory is very solidly anchored in practice."
This link also has a positive impact on teaching. "Students love it when their professors make the link between theory and the practice of living in society. It gives them a clearer picture of what they're studying about."
When a student came to Prémont recently asking to do a term paper about health care, the professor suggested a topic that stemmed from her work on the committee.
Academics' work on commissions also brings added recognition for the University. "The University is seen as a valuable resource, so support for the University increases," Shapiro says.
Just because the government has asked you for your opinion doesn't necessarily mean that the government will follow up on what you propose.
About four years ago, former defence minister Doug Young asked four prominent military historians, including McGill's Desmond Morton, how they would go about fixing Canada's armed forces.
Morton recommended that serving officers be better educated, that royal military colleges had outlived their usefulness and that the military should be the first of several careers for officers rather than being the only one.
The senior military brass proved to be a tough audience. "When you present these types of recommendations to a room of older people, it doesn't go over well," Morton says. "My recommendations on the whole weren't particularly successful. People listen to what they want to hear."
He isn't perturbed that the bulk of his advice wasn't acted upon. "What makes me so smart?" he says rhetorically. "I don't command any particular genius. I understood perhaps they wouldn't be followed."
Still, Spencer Boudreau says professors should contribute to forming government policy if they can. "We're very critical about government, so we should give them feedback. Being asked to sit on a committee is also a recognition of an academic's expertise, he says. "It's not often the minister asks for your advice."