October 2006

Re: “Consensus or More Colonialism?,” by Peter H. Russell

As cover illustration for my book, Creating Choices: Rethinking Aboriginal Policy, I chose a painting by Gerald Folster, a Manitoba Native artist. Standing at the window of a house is a young aboriginal woman looking out on a summer scene that could be many places in northern Canada. Leading from the house is a path. It forks, one branch winding toward a city on the horizon, the other into the bush. At the fork stands a second woman who must choose her path. Perhaps this second woman is mother to the first. Perhaps this choice is painful—to one or both of the women. Whatever the relation between the women or their state of mind, the painting evokes a choice faced by many aboriginals.

For Russell, my proposals for federal and provincial social policy to improve urban aboriginal education and health outcomes are potions “poured from the colonial medicine bottle.” For him, there is only one genuine choice. The urban path is taken only because Canadian governments violated the spirit of 19th-century treaties. Behind his accusation of colonialism is a refusal to accept the urban path, a path away from the reserve, as a legitimate choice.

Russell and I disagree. Urban aboriginals may be angry at historical injustices but, in my opinion, whatever new treaty arrangements are negotiated or litigated, most are unlikely to return to live on reserve. They may return to visit—urban aboriginals are more mobile than non-aboriginals—but they are as inextricably part of urban Canada as the grandchildren of black Mississippi sharecroppers are part of urban America.

Russell writes as passionate advocate for the goals of the Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella organization representing 600 band chiefs. His ideas have relevance to those aboriginals who continue to have meaningful reserve links. I wrote in the preface: “Treaties have an important role in any discussion of policy for the three in ten Aboriginals who live on reserve. But seven in ten now live off reserve, and five in ten live in cities.” These figures are from the 2001 census. Admittedly, of those aboriginals who identified as Indian—as opposed to Métis or Inuit—nearly one half lived on reserve, but even among this group nearly one quarter lived in a city.

Russell approves Yukon treaty negotiations undertaken by Tony Penikett. But only one in 20 aboriginals live north of the 60th parallel. The aboriginal population of Winnipeg—56,000 in 2001—is eight times larger than Yukon’s. Does Russell envision that Winnipeg be governed on the basis of co-management treaties between the city’s “white settlers” and leaders of the bands from which Winnipeg’s aboriginal population migrated? What role would he afford to Winnipeg’s non-status aboriginals, many of whom identify as Métis, not Indian?

To realize a good income in contemporary Canada, the prerequisite is a good education. Incidentally, I agree with Russell that the education agreement recently signed by Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice with bands in British Colombia makes sense. He interprets it as aboriginals taking control of their education. I interpret it somewhat differently. Individual bands already control on-reserve schools, but these schools are failing too many children. (Off-reserve schools are doing better by aboriginal students, but they too are not doing well enough.) The agreement enables transfer of control over on-reserve schools from individual bands to a larger and more professional aboriginal-run school authority that will, hopefully, achieve better results. Provided students of these more professionally run schools sit the required provincial exams, the provincial government has agreed that it will certify them as having the equivalent of a B.C. high school certification certificate.

The future prosperity of most—not all but most—aboriginals depends on their successful integration into modern, industrial and increasingly urban Canada. With due respect to Russell’s passionate advocacy, to the integrity of Penikett’s negotiations as Yukon premier, and to the skill whereby the Assembly of First Nations makes its case, Canadian aboriginal policy needs rethinking. It is time to give some respect to the fork in the path that leads to town.

John Richards
Vancouver, British Columbia

Re: “Academic Publishing in Canada: A Lament”

With regard to David Malone’s review of Bringing Power to Justice? The Prospects of the International Criminal Court October, the conference and book project to which this work relates gave the editors an opportunity to introduce students, and then readers, to thought-provoking articles of good quality, from diverse perspectives.

Our goal was to aid thinking about the future of the International Criminal Court—a future that has yet to be determined. Our efforts resulted in a collection of essays eventually made available to the general public at a reasonable price. It is simply a fact of life that university presses proceed at a very deliberate pace. Your reviewer makes brief unargued assertions about unnecessary footnotes in Dapo Akande’s chapter, about jargon in Antonio Franceschet’s chapter and about a lack of realism in Catherine Lu’s chapter. We regard these assertions as having no merit, and hope that readers will not be dissuaded from learning from these excellent discussions. As for the issue of an index, some collective volumes do have indexes, and some do not; when the component parts are highly individual in their approach, it is a judgement call, and it is a bit much to be accused of unprofessional negligence just because we made a judgement different from your reviewer’s. We leave others to judge whether the attack on academic presses in Canada will assist our struggling publishing industry. We pass over in polite silence your reviewer’s ad hominem suspicions about our motives in producing this book.

Joanna Harrington, Michael Milde and Richard Vernon
Edmonton, Alberta, and London, Ontario

Re: “Tainted Counsel,” by Thomas S. Axworthy

Donald Abelson has written an insightful book—we would expect him to do so. Tom Axworthy has written a review that will resonate well amongst his Liberal parishioners—we would expect him to do so. But both the book and its reviewer have missed an important point.

How does anybody—a consumer, a taxpayer, a prime minister—get unbiased, value-free information that has not been spin-doctored by an interest group seeking to influence their opinion? Friedrich Hayek, a founding member of the Fraser Institute’s editorial advisory board, won the Nobel Prize for pointing out that knowledge emerges from a competitive process in the marketplace, not from any single source. There is no such thing as an unbiased source.

Similarly, just because an information source is biased does not mean that it is not at the same time truthful. In the area of ideas every researcher has a bias. This bias emerges in the form of the questions to which the researchers apply their minds. The truthfulness of the research that emerges from the questions is a matter of the methodology and the extent of the peer review and criticism to which the ideas are subjected.

In turn the practical usefulness of the ideas that emerge can be judged over a period of time on the basis of whether they enable accurate predictions about the consequences of different courses of action and whether other researchers embrace the ideas which are produced.

For example, the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives are two Canadian think tanks that ask different questions about public policy issues and have different kinds of methodology and peer review. An Internet search on Google Scholar today shows that the work of the Fraser Institute is eight times more likely to appear in peer-reviewed scholarly journals than the work of CCPA. Public officials attempting to ascertain the “truth” may be more likely to be influenced by ideas that have been independently embraced by thousands of researchers with no connection to either of these institutes.

Contrary to Tom Axworthy’s contention, it would be unwise to expect government-funded entities to produce societally useful research about questions such as “Should there be an Economic Council of Canada?” The questions asked by such entities, like the former Economic Council of Canada, are usually derived from their governmental funders even if the research is independently and well conducted. More importantly, the existence of government-funded “question askers” has the potential for distorting the research agenda on public policy in the country as the best and brightest minds are lured by the higher pay and the glamour of “advising the minister.”

The competition among ideas, sources and constant challenges to dogma are the only process that can lead toward any truth. This is a competition to which governments should not bring the coercively derived money of taxpayers.

Michael Walker
Senior Fellow, Fraser Institute
Vancouver, British Columbia

Reading Tom Axworthy’s excellent review of Donald Abelson’s third book on think tanks and U.S. foreign policy, I am nonetheless struck by a couple of dichotomies:

–Canada’s think tanks have not been distracted much by military/foreign policy issues since Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, by policy diktat, diminished Canada’s relevance regarding these issues a very long time ago. Individual academics have addressed them to some extent since then, but in a much less influential manner than American institutes.

–A profound difference between Canadian and American think tanks is that Canada has a permanent public service where senior deputies absorb changes in government, parties and philosophy. The U.S. does not. So U.S. think tanks become hatcheries for new administrations, which is not the case in Canada.

In that light, Mr. Axworthy’s lament for the demise of the Economic Council of Canada is misplaced. As an organizational model for a publicly funded think tank, it was deeply flawed. From the perspective of input/output and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars, it needed either wholesale institutional reform or extinction. Moreover, his review does not discuss the Canadian versions of the book’s main preoccupation, privately funded U.S. think tanks, many of which Mr. Abelson believes to be ideologically motivated and excessively influential.

This is not the case here, although think tanks are flourishing. True, some operate from a more fixed ideological perspective. Others encourage diversity, combining singular academic disciplines with permanent analysts’ perspectives. Best of all, some combine a multidisciplinary approach.

But are they influential? In my ten years of directing one such privately funded institute, the C.D. Howe, only once did I have proof of influence. After the Meech Lake/Charlottetown accord fiascos, I was invited to Ottawa by senior permanent public servants who proffered their thanks for the output that the institute had provided at a time when the permanent public service had been decimated by budget cuts. That struck me as proof. Generally, the public service does not deign to admit such influence.

Accordingly, think tanks in Canada must seek out publicity to encourage public, parliamentary and political/civil service debate and attention. This is not self-aggrandizing, seeking publicity to raise money. It is a necessity: privately funded think tanks have hard-nosed boards of directors who decide whether the goals are being met or not. Being heard is important.

To conclude, in Canada there are two huge policy voids: foreign affairs and military issues are long overdue for rethinking. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s defining mid-August speeches on northern sovereignty established that. As did his government’s affirmation of Canada’s military commitment to fight global terrorism in Afghanistan. On both issues, outdated assumptions still dominate. For Canada’s think tanks, this is the next frontier.

Thomas Kierans
Former president and CEO, C.D. Howe Institute
Toronto, Ontario

Thanks to Tom Axworthy for his review of A Capitol Idea. There is little doubt that some U.S. think tanks (such as the Project for a New American Century) have exercised an extraordinary and disturbing degree of influence on the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

I fear, however, that Canadian readers will take from this review that all think tanks are spin over substance, that they do not undertake original research and that ideology colours all that they do.

That may be true of a few Canadian think tanks, but as the director of a non-profit research institute that operates outside government and universities, it doesn’t reflect my experience.

Not everything published by think tanks is original. They also function as a clearinghouse for important research that otherwise would encounter only a tiny scholarly audience, ensuring that this work becomes part of larger public policy debates.

But other research is very much original. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, for example, has been awarded some of the few Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada research grants hosted outside academia. As the co-director of one, I can tell you that it has seen us undertake vital multi-year primary research (in collaboration with academics). Our research is shedding new light on how policy choices affect vulnerable populations. And in the absence of our efforts, this work would not have been conducted by either government or others.

As for the role of ideology, most think tanks do have a worldview that is reflected in their missions. They have values that guide their work. This is not a bad thing. Indeed, acknowledging such values is often more honest than pretending otherwise.

A general philosophical orientation does influence our work: it affects what topics we research, it informs the questions we ask, but it does not detract from an insistence on rigorous research and sound methodology.

Ultimately, it is impossible to remove values from public policy decisions. Why? Because there is no such thing as a public policy that is all good or all bad. Every policy—whether it is tax cuts, public child care, hosting the Olympics or putting in a stop sign—has costs, benefits, opportunity costs, risks and (often obscured) winners and losers. In weighing such considerations, values are inescapable.

We see our role as engaging with the public about how we can take better care of one another, and challenging the notion that one dominant set of ideas is inevitable; that “there is no alternative.” We persistently insist that other policy choices exist. And that is surely a valuable function.

Seth Klein
Director, British Columbia; Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Vancouver, British Columbia

Tom Axworthy’s thought-provoking review of Donald Abelson’s A Capitol Idea laments the Mulroney government’s end-of-term decision to axe government-supported Canadian think tanks such as the Economic Council of Canada and the Science Council. However, contemporary Canadian think tanks—although much smaller and fewer relative to those in the U.S.—still exist and make a useful contribution to public policy. While most social policy think tanks in Canada depend upon government financial support, some do not.

The Caledon Institute is what Mr. Abelson characterizes as a “private” think tank, operating independently of government and universities. We have undertaken contract work for all three orders of government and have attracted investments from foundations for some of our projects. But Caledon does not depend on government for our core operating funding—Maytree, a small family foundation based in Toronto, is the institute’s major funder—allowing Caledon to function free from government control, directly or indirectly.

Yet—or perhaps because—of our independence from government, Caledon has had a significant influence on public policy reform since our creation in 1992, illustrating Abelson’s argument that “small organizations with the right idea at the right time can influence the right people.” Among the varied policy areas where Caledon has played a key role are the National Child Benefit; tax benefits for Canadians with disabilities, reindexation of the income tax system; customized training involving the private sector, governments and the voluntary sector; the national framework on early learning and child care; a social vision for the City of Hamilton; a national strategy on respite for caregivers; comprehensive community initiatives to reduce poverty and enhance the quality of life; a disability savings plan for the parents of children with severe disabilities; and the reform of adult benefits.

Our organizational independence has been crucial to Caledon’s success, but even more so the quality and timeliness of our work, which one senior bureaucrat once characterized as “policy ready.” Caledon is driven by the conviction that, again to quote Abelson, “public policy should not be the monopoly of government, that complex problems require a diversity of options, well researched and well presented.”


Ken Battle, President, and Sherri Torjman, Vice-President
Caledon Institute for Public Policy
Ottawa, Ontario

A Response from the Reviewer

Donald Abelson’s book on think tanks is about the United States, but my brief assessment of its relevance for policy development in Canada aroused the most comments. Michael Walker, not surprisingly, cites Friedrich Hayek on the utility of competition in the idea marketplace. In 1644, in Areopagitica, John Milton made the point even better: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to do worse in a free and open encounter?” The key point is whether there is enough diversity of organized thought in Canada.

Tom Kierans rightly gives us one reason why Canada may be deficient in this regard in comparison with the United States: traditionally, we have had a closed system of executive decision making. With the public service jealously guarding its policy prerogatives, what is the incentive for thinking about ideas from the outside? But slowly, ever slowly, this might be changing. If Parliament, and parliamentary committees in particular, begin to play more of a policy role in the post-Gomery world, then influencing the individual member of Parliament will matter much more. The potential of Canadian think tanks will be enhanced (hence, the necessity to have multiple sources of expertise). As Kierans argues, Canada is now involved in a war in Afghanistan, with little initial public debate, and two of the best think tanks that might have played a role on this issue—John Lamb’s Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament and Geoffrey Pearson’s Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security—were wound up 15 years ago.

Seth Klein, Ken Battle and Sherri Torjman make the case that Canadian think tanks do original work and can have an influence. I agree. If they can be financed voluntarily, all the better. But if Canada needs more creativity in policy thinking, our analytical infrastructure is awfully thin. We need either more incentives to encourage the creation, maintenance and expansion of our think tanks or we should create taxpayer-supported pools of knowledge outside the executive system, we need both. Such institutions should report to Parliament, not the executive, to ensure independence. As Milton wrote: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

Thomas Axworthy

Re: “A Little Taste of Canadian Philosophy”

J.S. Porter finds much to complain about in this recent anthology of popular writing by Canadian philosophers. Most of these objections focus upon sins of omission—authors who, as a result of either snootiness or parochialism, have been left out of the collection. On this point, I must agree with Porter wholeheartedly. I should add, however, that the most grotesque omission is one that he passes over without comment. Indeed, the glaring problem with this collection is that it contains nothing at all written by me.

Having suffered this egregious snub, I am as ill disposed toward this motley and half-baked stew as Porter appears to have been. Yet, at the same time, I think I have a somewhat better understanding of what the editors were trying to accomplish. Indeed, scanning through Porter’s review, the main problem seems to be that he would have liked to have been reading a completely different book. And someday, someone may publish that book. In the meantime, however, it’s worth dwelling a bit more upon this book, and thinking more carefully about what the editors were up to.

For example, this is a collection of contemporary writing. So why is there nothing by George Grant in it? Setting aside the half-dozen intellectual reasons I can think of, let me just point to the one most crushingly obvious reason for leaving him out. He’s dead.

Why no David Suzuki? Well let’s just say that Suzuki, unlike many of the professors represented in this collection, suffers no lack of opportunities for self-promotion. He has ghost writers who are more famous than some of these poor folks.

Why no Malcolm Gladwell? Maybe they couldn’t get past his agent. It’s bizarre to assume that the absence of a piece by some famous writer reflects a lack of interest on the part of the editors. Not all celebrity authors leap at the opportunity to donate their work to collections published by second-tier academic presses.

But all of this is beside the point. Like it or not, philosophy is an academic discipline. And like most academic disciplines, it is dominated by a relatively small set of ongoing conversations, which are carried on at an extremely high level of sophistication. It takes about five years of university education to figure out what is going on in these conversations, and another five years to figure out how to make a useful contribution. Needless to say, the topics of these conversations are also quite far removed from the concerns of everyday life. As a result, most of the people who go down the rabbit hole of academic philosophy simply never re-emerge to say anything remotely intelligible to the rest of the human race. They don’t even know how to make small talk at the bus stop.

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. Some academics manage both to participate in the very abstract, specialized conversations of professional philosophy and to write popular work that is accessible to a general audience. These are the writers who are represented in this collection. Mark Kingwell and Malcolm Gladwell both write lovely sentences, and they both express many thoughts that sound “philosophical.” The difference is that, when he puts on his other hat, Kingwell writes very pedantic sentences and develops complex arguments, which appear in peer-reviewed publications such as the Journal of Philosophy. Gladwell has no other hat.

Thanks to the institution of peer review, you cannot build a career in academic philosophy publishing work that an overwhelming majority of smart people with the same sort of education as you think is garbage. In popular writing, on the other hand, this is manifestly not the case (as witnessed by the success of several authors whom Porter mentions). The interest in this collection lies in seeing how philosophers who have done work that meets the intellectual standards of their fellow philosophers try to translate their reflections into writing that will be of some use to non-specialists.

Joseph Heath
Toronto, Ontario

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