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Is Harper Stealing From the Future to Feed the Present?

03/12/2014 09:05 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

The children squirm, kick the table, cover their eyes -- anything to distract themselves from the beckoning marshmallow. It was a sugary iceberg of temptation just waiting to sink their resolve.

On YouTube you can find many recreations of Walter Mischel's famous marshmallow experiment. In 1970, Mischel, a Stanford University psychologist, presented a group of nursery school children, one by one, with a solitary marshmallow on a plate. They were told they could eat the treat right away, but if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows. It was a test of self-control -- denying immediate gratification to reap future benefits.

A few weeks ago we wrote about a ground-breaking agreement between the federal government and First Nations on education. Odd as it may seem, the story got us thinking about Mischel and his marshmallows. When it comes to addressing the great challenges of our world, our society could learn something from those pre-schoolers.

On February 7, the government announced it would give almost $2 billion in new funding for aboriginal education. But it will take years to build all the new schools required, let alone create new community-run school systems. The real impact on aboriginal communities will take at least a generation to manifest. When next year's federal election rolls around, this agreement will provide few tangible, here-and-now marshmallows for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to offer voters. The Prime Minister could undoubtedly wallpaper all the buildings on Parliament Hill with project proposals and demands for funding that could deliver short-term economic or political benefits much sooner. Instead, the government has made a laudable investment in the future.

Canada is not always so good at denying the marshmallow today to benefit generations to come.

The Millennium Development Goals are the epitome of a long-term, world-changing project. With little prospect for immediate gain, nations agreed to move the needle on global poverty. In 2000, developing countries set targets on key problems like education and maternal health. Rich nations pledged the resources to help them hit those targets.

With the 2015 deadline approaching, we're in the home stretch for the Millennium Development Goals. Countries are already talking about the next great plan. However, last year, the Canadian government declared the new priority for development programs is to support our nation's trade interests. Our aid dollars will go where they can reap commercial benefits for Canada, not necessarily where they will have the most impact against global poverty.

The scientific consensus on climate change is irrefutable: it is happening, and much of it is caused by human activity. The only questions are how severe the consequences will be, and when will we feel the impact? Some of the communities we work in are already experiencing more severe droughts and storms. Future generations of Canadians will feel the impact in the economic costs of weather events like flooding, and in a tide of environmental refugees from developing nations.

And yet it appears unlikely that Canada will meet its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last fall, Canada was savaged in two different reports -- one from an international development think tank, the other, a global network of environmental NGOs -- for its inaction on climate change. Our country must take aggressive steps to reduce emissions. But politicians and industry fret about the costs. Faced with a long-term environmental issue, they choose to risk greater problems later to avoid economic pain now.

Over the past couple of decades, federal and provincial governments have struggled with economic downturns and the rising health care costs of an aging Boomer generation. To pay today's bills, they've borrowed against our investment in generations to come.

In the 1970s, public funding covered approximately 90 per cent of the cost of a post-secondary education. Now, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, it's 57 per cent. Much of the difference has been downloaded onto students. The estimated total of student debt in Canada right now is $15 billion. Forcing young Canadians to bear that kind debt burden right from the moment they begin their adult lives is truly stealing from the future.

The most interesting part of Mischel's experiment was the sequel. Nineteen years after he first tempted those pre-schoolers, he tracked them down again. Mischel discovered the children who had exercised self-control and waited for their rewards did better in later life. They scored higher grades in school, were healthier and less likely to have addiction problems, and had greater advancement in their careers than the children who couldn't stop from gobbling the first marshmallow.

Poverty, climate change, and youth opportunity are just a few of the great challenges that lie before us. In order to set future generations up for success, we must learn a little sacrifice and self-control.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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