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Jim Balsillie: bringing Canada to the world and the world to Canada

Do they come any better than Jim Balsillie?

If you're looking for Canada Day inspiration, look no further than the turbo-charged innovator with a billion-dollar budget, a heart that beats for the country and a global conscience.

We know of the roaring success of his company, Research In Motion. It just reported its first billion-dollar sales quarter. Profits have jumped 73 per cent. It will ship its 20 millionth little piece of Canada - the BlackBerry - this summer. But the 46-year-old Southern Ontario native isn't stopping there. Last week, he put up $33-million to create Canada's biggest school of international affairs, something that one day might rival the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton or gain the clout of the Kennedy School at Harvard.

The school is to be a breeding ground for ideas for our governments and other governments. It will fill a big gap at the student level, where the demand for foreign studies has been ramping up. "It's an unprecedented initiative," said Louise Fréchette, the Canadian who served as deputy secretary-general at the United Nations from 1998 to 2006. "I don't think we've had this kind of endowment in Canada for international relations and diplomacy ever."

The Balsillie School of International Affairs will operate out of Waterloo, Ont., and will work in tandem with a think tank Mr. Balsillie created in 2002, the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where Ms. Fréchette does research and to which Mr. Balsillie gave another $17-million last week.

Institutes and foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller and Brookings in the U.S., Ms. Fréchette noted, are highly influential. "We need to have counterparts in Canada." Canada's other schools of international affairs, embarrassingly few in number, haven't had the clout or resources to take on the role.

While Mr. Balsillie was tallying up RIM profits and announcing plans for the new school, he was at war with the National Hockey League hierarchy. His bid to bring more of Canada to the NHL by moving a franchise to Southern Ontario prompted league commissioner Gary Bettman to throw up all kinds of roadblocks. Mr. Bettman evidently prefers locations such as Nashville and Kansas City. Like the people in those towns, he never really had hockey in his blood.

But if Mr. Balsillie's track record is any indication, he will be able to bypass the mediocrity of Mr. Bettman, whose experiment in U.S. expansion, as witnessed by the pitiful TV ratings, has known few successes. While some balk at the idea of three NHL teams in Southern Ontario, interest in the game there is twice as high as in the New York area, which has three teams, two of which can't fill their arenas.

Growing up, Mr. Balsillie was one of those kids who had five newspaper routes. At his home near London, Ont., he ran a student-painting operation, did maintenance work at a trailer park, ran a Big Brothers camp and did it all, friends report, with a big cheery grin.

University of Waterloo president David Johnston recalled a day several years ago when the concept for an international affairs school was born. Mr. Balsillie went out for a long run and came back bubbling with ideas about bringing moral order to the global economy. "If we can't get along with one another," Mr. Johnston recalled him saying, "if we can't govern ourselves, then prosperity just goes to nothing."

Andrew Cooper, one of the fellows at the think tank, described Mr. Balsillie as being all about "energy, links, networks, a spirit of internationalism." Those working to develop the school include Paul Heinbecker, a former ambassador to the UN, and John English, whose latest book is an enlightening volume on Pierre Trudeau. In describing how the school and think tank will explore new ways for international co-operation, Mr. Heinbecker and Mr. English plan to use the tremendous resources to attract scholars from around the world.

It all fits the Balsillie model. He's bringing Canada to the world and the world to Canada. "He has this wonderful mix of localism and internationalism," said Mr. Cooper. "He thinks Waterloo and Canada can compete with anybody."

It shouldn't be a surprise. He's already proved it. And, with time, he'll prove it again.

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