OTTAWA — A surprise appearance by prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau at a reception of university presidents sends a powerful signal about a fresh tone from Ottawa, says the new head of Universities Canada.
Elizabeth Cannon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary, says she was "thrilled" by Trudeau's unannounced, short visit and address Tuesday night at a reception near Parliament Hill hosted by Canada's university umbrella organization, formerly known as the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada.
"With 214 new MPs, a soon-to-be-announced cabinet of new ministers and a prime minister who began his career as an educator, we have, right now, an unprecedented opportunity to provide fresh thinking in Ottawa and throughout Canada on higher education, research and innovation," Cannon said in a speech Wednesday as she began her two-year term as Universities Canada chair.
In an interview, Cannon called Trudeau's appearance this week "a huge signal for us."
"He talked passionately about the impact his own university education had on him, his life, his thinking. That was a very positive message," said Cannon, an engineer..
"I think it sets a wonderful tone moving forward."
The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper liked to use university types and intellectual elites as a rhetorical punching bag, although the government's actual policies on post-secondary education were far more nuanced.
"Look, it's not that elite opinion doesn't matter and in all matters expert opinion always counts, but you cannot govern well and you cannot govern properly unless you understand the values and realities of ordinary Canadians," Harper said just last month in a mid-election interview with Metro newspaper.
His former chief of staff, Ian Brodie, was more blunt in 2009 when he told a McGill University panel that "politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types," over criminal justice reforms.
Past university association chairs did meet with Harper on occasion during his almost 10 years in office, said spokeswoman Helen Murphy, but he never made an appearance at one of University Canada's twice-early membership events.
Cannon was diplomatic in assessing the Conservative record, noting the government launched significant new programs even in tough financial times, including a $1.5 billion Canada First Excellence Research Fund announced in the 2014 budget that began dispersing grants this year.
She said individual MPs and Conservative cabinet ministers always warmly welcomed the university community, despite all the anti-intellectual rhetoric such as the much-repeated jibe about Trudeau "committing sociology."
In her speech, the new association chair highlighted public opinion research that suggests Canadians recognize and value university education, including pure research and the oft-maligned social sciences.
An association-commissioned poll in June found clear support for government funding of universities, including for basic research "even if that research doesn't lead to immediate economic results," Cannon told the luncheon audience.
Later, she cited getting social licence for resource projects or improving engagements with First Nations as pressing issues that "have a very strong social sciences, humanities dimension."
As Cannon put it in an interview: "To see that validated through a direct discussion with Canadians helps set the tone for conversations with this new government and sort of get beyond a short-term skills agenda into how do you really build a strong Canada for the long term.
"It's about critical thinking, it's about having students with international experiences, cultural awareness."
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