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If you were Prime Minister, what would you do? Cut taxes? Beef up the military? Send Paul Martin on a five-year "fact-finding" mission to Ellesmere?
Megalomaniacal daydreaming aside, being PM is a tough job, but four McGill students have a bit of a handle on how they'd start. Noah Billick, Nicholas Gafuik, Reynolds Mastin and Amitabh Saxena are among the ten finalists in the ninth "If I Were Prime Minister" essay contest sponsored by auto-parts manufacturer Magna Inc.
George Marsland, executive director of the Magna for Canada scholarship program, said he does not recall such a large contingent of finalists coming from one university before. It's an impressive feat: there were 500 entries this year, and these were narrowed down to 50 semi-finalists and then to the final 10.
Marsland explained that the goal of the contest is to create a community of young people who are engaged in public policy.
"We believe it's important to give back to the society and the country that we operate in. We believe that young people are the most important agents of change, and it's important in a healthy society for political institutions to have the input of young people," he said.
They put their money where their mouth is. Each of the 50 semi-finalists received $500 and other prizes worth $2,500. The 10 finalists receive a further $10,000, plus a four-month internship at Magna or at an NGO, as well as having their essay published in the contest's annual anthology. The winner gets a further $10,000 ($20,500 total), plus a year-long internship.
It's no walk in the park. Contestants submit a 2,500-word essay on "If you were Prime Minister of Canada what political vision would you offer to improve our living standards and ensure a secure and prosperous global community?" They then have to present and defend their ideas to a panel of judges that include Jean Charpentier (former press secretary to Trudeau), Major-General Richard Rohmer and journalists Mike Duffy, Joan Crockatt and Michael Harris. The winner will be announced at a gala in Ottawa in November.
The four McGill finalists drew on their own backgrounds and experiences. Noah Billick is a MBA/law student who, before returning to school after his undergrad, had been both a stockbroker and high-school teacher. He focused on the global security aspect of the question.
"When you look at the objective measures [like the UN Human Development Index], Canada always ranks very high," he said, adding that our country already has a very successful democratic tradition with good standards of living and accountable institutions. Billick believes that other nations can benefit from Canada's expertise. Already countries like South Africa have looked to Canada's constitution to rebuild their own institutions post-Apartheid.
Billick proposed formalizing this process by creating a knowledge bank of both procedures and experts that would be available to countries that requested them. Through this, Canada would gain international influence and respect. Ideally, countries that used our model would become more stable and economically competitive.
"A safer and more prosperous world benefits all of us," he said.
Fellow law student (and also a former teacher) Reynolds Mastin chose to focus on an issue a little closer to home in his essay. Growing up in Northern Ontario, Mastin was appalled at the poverty in which Canada's native people live on the nation's reserves. He listed a number of ideas to rectify what he considers to be one of Canada's greatest failings.
His ideas are somewhat controversial. One would be to sell reserve lands to occupants for $1. This would allow individuals to get bank credit — although it could also transform the reserve system beyond recognition. Another idea was to set up a National Aboriginal School of the Arts in Saskatoon.
His most controversial idea was to set up a social assistance program for off-reserve natives. Access to the program would require drug and alcohol counselling, unless the individual wished to participate in an approved testing program to receive an exemption, or obtained a note from a doctor or addictions counsellor. It's an idea that has drawn a lot of fire.
"That part of the policy seemed to overshadow everything else," he said ruefully.
"I wanted to put it in to provoke debate more than anything else. I think [the judges] respected that I put it in and argued for it."
Mastin said that in the end, he realizes such a policy does have serious flaws, but not discussing what are real problems will not do any good either. "I think the moral worth of the country is at stake."
Nicholas Gafuik looked more to Canada's international image in his essay. The MA student in history said that Canada has slipped greatly from our golden age of diplomacy in the 1950s. Regaining that place in the world would be his priority were he to occupy 24 Sussex.
More money for the military would be an important first step.
"I think for Canada to be strong at home, we have to be strong abroad," he said.
Our international achievements have historically been a source of pride for Canadians from coast to coast. To continue that effectiveness, we need to be able to adapt to the new realities of globalization, terrorism and an activist American government. Of his many recommendations, Gafuik suggested that Canada take the lead in reforming the United Nations' structure. Gafuik did his presentation from Cambodia, where he was working with The Future Group, an NGO he helped found.
Amitabh Saxena's entry was also coloured by international experience: he wrote his essay while travelling through Africa, working with an organization that provides computer literacy training to impoverished Kenyans.
Saxena advocates more international linkages for Canadian students through exchange programs and internships with Canadian companies abroad. His other priorities include lowering our trade dependency on the U.S., eliminating subsidies for Canadian farmers so poorer countries can compete more fairly on the international market, and dropping tariffs and providing international credit.
"Canada can be a catalyst just by encouraging trade and dropping these tariffs, because right now we're not even giving them a chance," he said.
None of the McGill finalists have decided what sort of internship they will look for with Magna or an NGO, but much of the money they've already won has been spoken for. Mastin and Gafuik are both paying off student debt. Saxena — an engineering graduate — is talking with his former faculty about establishing a leadership scholarship for deserving students. Billick, on the other hand, was able to put his to immediate use. "The money is nice because I just got married this summer. It was welcome."
For more information, please see www.asprimeminister.com