Ditchburn: What should be on Canada’s policy radar?

Good overview on the IRPP discussions on policy challenges. Striking that neither labour challenges nor immigration were raised by the policy and public administration schools consulted, perhaps because the issues are not considered emerging:

Leadership is a series of strategic choices: picking where to focus your attention and finite resources. Now, consider the meteor shower of complex challenges that is raining down on Canada—from an increasingly precarious geopolitical environment, to worsening climate change, to nagging labour shortages. How do governments decide what to prioritize?

To lend a hand to our beleaguered leaders, the Institute for Research on Public Policy marked its 50th anniversary by asking schools of public policy and public administration: “What emerging issue do you think should be on the radar of decision-makers?”  

We visited nine schools in six provinces. Here’s some of what we heard.

Eroding public trust and deepening cleavages

The word “polarization” is tossed around a lot, but that doesn’t quite capture what’s happening. It’s not that Canadians are split into two distinct political or social camps, like our neighbours south of the border. Rather, there are tensions around issues, and a growing antipathy toward or distrust of governments and institutions—think of Hockey Canada, the RCMP, or the passport office.

These cleavages aren’t just between Freedom Convoy supporters and detractors, but are also felt by those who believe themselves estranged from the sites of power and opportunities. This can include racialized and Indigenous people, who see little progress in dismantling the systemic racism that keeps them from access to jobs, health care, and upward income mobility.

Still, regional resentments are a thing. Data collected and analyzed by the IRPP’s co-led Confederation of Tomorrow project suggests that Quebecers feel the rest of the country looks down on them. The project’s “resentment index” noted that people in Saskatchewan and Alberta feel they contribute more than their share to the federation and are most likely to disagree that Quebec does.

Resilient and coherent climate policy

We heard stark messages about how Canadians will need to adapt and become more resilient to storms, droughts, fires, heat events and other calamities. Dealing with these climate disasters requires governments to plan and invest much further into the future. 

A core theme that came up repeatedly was the feeling that there is a lack of a coherent pan-Canadian plan for getting to net zero, one that acknowledges that different regions have different realities and incorporates a wide spectrum of views. Meanwhile, the United States is pouring billions into new technologies and clean manufacturing through its Inflation Reduction Act. 

“Canada has emissions reductions targets, and they’re good, but what we don’t have is the techno-economic policies that are going to help us make those targets happen,” said Maggie Hanna, president of Alberta-based Common Ground Energy. 


Perhaps some of the most astonishing stories we heard were from a panel convened at Dalhousie University on housing challenges in Nova Scotia.

Lisa Ryan, executive director of the South Shore Open Doors Association, said her organization had recorded 167 people experiencing homelessness in Lunenberg County in September 2022—63 of them children under the age of 16. Families were living in cars and tents, after their long-term rentals suddenly turned into short-term rentals. People move to Halifax in search of housing, only to face long waits and rampant discrimination from landlords.

Housing is a pivotal policy challenge. It can impact economic growth if companies cannot house workers, and it can start a multi-generational spiral of poor health and poor economic outcomes.

Governance and challenges to the federation

The COVID pandemic did much to bring federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments together. They were able to act fast and decisively and forge strong new personal relationships. There was also incredible creativity—such as the rapid deployment of remote health care services.

But then there’s the ugly truth of the federation’s weaknesses: poor data sharing, overlapping programs and regulations, unequal access to technology and inconsistent channels of communication. As Canada moves forward with trying to create an east-west electricity grid, address labour and supply chain problems, and reform its relationship with Indigenous nations, attention must be paid to the health and mechanics of intergovernmental relationships.

Governments will need to ward against regulatory shortcuts, where the speed of getting things done trumps other core principles such as transparency, coherence, and the respect of Indigenous rights. Collaborating and communicating with Indigenous communities will require a deeper understanding of governance systems.

“A lot of that is happening through women, youth and elders, our knowledge-keepers, where we’re starting to recognize their roles. Those roles were taken away from us, without our consent,” said Danette Starblanket, an executive-in-residence at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Regina.

Travelling the country, what stands out is just how much core policy challenges overlap with one another. Climate resilience is intimately tied up with housing, as poorer Canadians will be most at risk of displacement. Distrust of institutions grows as existing governance structures fail to include different perspectives and communicate transparently. If the country does not invest in both people and technologies along the path to net zero, the negative economic impacts will also affect our ability to fund aspects of our social safety net. 

What was also abundantly clear in our conversations is how much willingness there is in the country to work across sectors and across geographic boundaries to come up with good policy and ensure that there is a feeling of common cause and inclusion. 

But who will bring Canadians together around these tough questions? This overarching challenge calls for both good governance and strong leadership. The mechanisms that different levels of governments have for connecting with one and other, with experts (including at think tanks and universities) and with the public must be updated and improved if we’re going to address myriad other policy problems. We need leaders who can see the bigger picture of how different systems fit together and do the unglamourous behind-the-scenes work to get us ready for the next challenges that will pop up on the radar.

Jennifer Ditchburn is the president and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. She’s on Twitter @jenditchburn.   

Source: What should be on Canada’s policy radar? 

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: