Big ideas need bold vision

Earlier this year, in a barn-burner of a speech in Ottawa, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney cleverly employed a quote by U.S. football coach, Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” This was intended as a sharp rebuke to Canada, which Mulroney fears has grown complacent, taking “too much of what we have for granted believing mistakenly that our vast resources will generate prosperity just by being there.”

Mulroney was laying the groundwork for a “big idea”, which involved integrating and rationalizing the priorities of First Nations, provinces and the environment with the imperative that Canada move swiftly to develop its energy and resource potential.

Indeed, Canada’s energy endowment is vast and diverse. We have more than we need of everything the world wants. This gives rise to an investment opportunity that cannot be measured in the billions of dollars or even the hundreds of billions, but in the trillions. Thoughtfully stewarded and sustainably developed, this endowment can be converted in valuable forms of capital – not only financial, but also social, intellectual and ecological capital – with which to invest in the building of our nation’s future.

And yet, we seem unable to unite around our potential and move forward to seize the opportunity. Energy developments of every kind are opposed everywhere. The concerns of communities impacted by the proposed projects are understandable. The privatization of reward and the socialization of downside risk is a powerful narrative that, quite naturally, strikes everyone as profoundly unfair. In order to move past the opposition, this narrative must change.

But how? In a word, with “vision”. Equipped with a nationally-held vision, Canada can overcome its current paralysis and become a nation of builders again.

A vision that is truly national should reflect the values and aspirations of Canadians everywhere. It should be an articulation of what we wish to become as a nation, in which everyone can see a piece of themselves, and what they care about, duly represented. This would serve as a fixed point around which people can unite – a platform for acting with common cause and purpose. South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Norway are examples of countries that, at different points in their history, have undergone profound and positive transformations by levering their resource wealth to support the achievement of national objectives in public health, commerce and education, to name a few.

A national vision can set the long-term goals by which a national energy strategy can be designed. Many attempts to develop a Canadian energy strategy have been initiated in recent years. But without a clear and broadly endorsed vision, we’ve had no means of evaluating the respective merits of the alternative strategies proposed. By contrast, a strategy that is credibly designed to achieve a vision would provide Canadians with “line-of-sight” – an ability to make the connection between national vision and local action. If people can see that a new pipeline or wind farm, for example, is part of strategy to deliver on a vision they support, then it becomes a means to an end; a common good as opposed to a private benefit.

A national vision can also communicate Canada’s direction and intent to the global community. How Canada chooses to develop its resources and to what global challenges the resulting capabilities are directed, could build its political capital among the community of nations. As U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, recently explained during a visit to Ottawa, ‘if any of our allies are not energy-secure, then none of us are.’

We need a big vision that shakes up peoples’ perceptions and inverts the narrative. With universal health care, Canada has proven that it can weave a nation-affirming vision from a provincially regulated issue. We can do it again with a national vision that rises above regional differences for the thoughtful and balanced stewardship of our shared natural resources heritage. Whether it’s Brian Mulroney’s idea for a “Resource Development Office”, or BMO Financial Group Vice Chairman Kevin Lynch’s concept of a public energy transportation corridor stretching from coast-to-coast, anything is possible if it enables a bold vision shared by Canadians everywhere.

Now THAT’S a big idea!