Governor General David Johnston Promotes Innovation In Visit To U.S.

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OTTAWA — Canada needs to avoid becoming complacent on the innovation front if it hopes to reverse a brain drain that has top researchers heading south of the border and overseas to complete their work, the Governor General says.

David Johnston says Canada must work on developing a more muscular entrepreneurial spirit, one that constantly looks towards reinvention and competing in markets beyond North America.

He says Canadians need a more adventuresome spirit to fuel an innovation agenda that can compete with smaller countries keen to be world leaders on the innovation front.

david johnston
Governor General David Johnston is interview at Rideau Hall in April. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

"That adventuresome spirit, that constant quest to be prepared for a different world, to embrace change, is something that we need to understand and exploit to our advantage," Johnston said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

The term innovation is a bit of a buzzword for governments, academics and private sector executives that can mean different things to different people. For Johnston, the term is pretty simple, but the process it describes is anything but: It's not quite discovering something new, but taking an existing or developing idea then using it to make something better.

"It's improving something that improves the human condition and it's that kind of culture that I think we want to foster as strongly as we can in Canada."

Canadians could fall into a state of complacency when it comes to promoting research and development of new products and services largely because life is fairly comfortable in Canada, said Johnston. Canada has safe communities, relatively low levels of poverty, a sense that life will be better for the next generation, and a peaceful relationship with our neighbour, the United States, he added.

"That adventuresome spirit, that constant quest to be prepared for a different world, to embrace change, is something that we need to understand and exploit to our advantage."

"I worry most about complacency — and when I look at the nations and societies that are most innovative and most keen in terms of constant improvement, they're very often smaller nations that have had particular adversity," he said, citing Israel and Singapore as models.

Smaller countries like Finland and Sweden ensure their people can speak multiple languages, allowing them to work and trade with the world, he added.

Canada has the ability to speak to any part of the world as a result of wave upon wave of immigrants who have brought new energy to the country and speak many languages around the world, Johnston noted.

"That in itself should and could be a great trade advantage and I don't think we've exploited it to the extent we should."

Johnston is in Washington as part of a contingent promoting Canada as a research and innovation hub at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

5th visit to U.S. as Governor General

This is his fifth visit to the U.S. as Governor General, but his first to the capital. It comes weeks before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first visit to Washington for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and a state dinner at the White House.

On Wednesday, Johnston laid a wreath at the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice at Arlington Cemetery, the first Governor General to do so since Vincent Massey in 1954.

Johnston said the visits to the United States by Canada's head of state have been infrequent, but he hopes that his successor will keep up his trend of more regular visits south of the border.

"The United States is so much more important to Canada than Canada is to the United States, said Johnston, whose term as Governor General ends in September 2017.

"We must understand that and work at the relationship constantly and with great attention and with great care."

Johnston was to speak Thursday to a group of entrepreneurs alongside Science Minister Kirsty Duncan before meeting the heads of the Canadian, American and European science agencies.

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