Our country is deeply embedded in the world. In the last century we bravely fought in two world wars, each from the first weeks. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lester Pearson's Nobel laureate for his remarkable diplomacy. In peace and in war, Canada has played an exemplary part. Our parents and grandparents knew that we must. But have we forgotten?

I watched the leaders' debates during the last federal election. During three debates there was only one question that dealt with foreign policy. The Americans, who we so often criticize for narrow vision, devoted one entire debate to foreign policy issues. Of course, Iraq was a dominant American issue, but are not issues such as energy, the environment, Arctic sovereignty, the border, and Afghanistan issues that profoundly affect Canada and its future?

The Record's series of articles on global challenges written by researchers working at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) illustrates clearly how important such issues are to Canadians. Although I am the principal donor to CIGI, I have not told its researchers what to study. My donations to CIGI, the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and, more recently, to the Canadian International Council are for the purpose of supporting the best research on which Canadians can make decisions about Canada's role in a rapidly changing international environment. I welcome the day when holiday party chatter is not about cars or holidays but about what we should do about global warning or an increasingly difficult border.

When I donated the funds that formed the base of CIGI's endowment, I realized how important it was to build capacity around it. For that reason, CIGI developed close links with the two Waterloo universities through joint appointments and support for students. Five years ago when CIGI took form neither university had a doctoral program in political science. Waterloo had just begun a small program in economics. There was no graduate program in international relations or global governance.

On Friday, more than 100 scholars and students gathered at CIGI's superb headquarters in Waterloo to celebrate the holiday season and to share thoughts about the exciting research projects and future projects of CIGI and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, for which construction will begin shortly on the empty Seagram lands adjacent to CIGI. The buzz has begun.

Small wonder. Thirty students have scholarship support and there are four CIGI chairs currently at UW and Laurier. Recently, UW announced the appointment of the first of 12 new CIGI chairs to be shared between the two universities: Thomas Homer-Dixon, one of the world's leading scholars dealing with the environment and climate change. On international issues, our community is becoming a world-renowned centre.

Accompanied by leading CIGI researchers, I will appear next week before an important Canadian task force on Canadian competitiveness, of which my good friend Tom Jenkins of Open Text is a panel member. We will emphasize that while it is important that Canada run a tight ship domestically, our ship will sail forth in rapidly changing and sometimes highly turbulent international seas. We need the compasses that strong Canadian research on international issues can provide.

CIGI has played a major role in transforming the Canadian Institute of International Affairs (CIIA), which unlike the prestigious and influential American Council on Foreign Relations, lacked a research base. Through the creation of the new Canadian International Council, which has the strong support of the private sector, a group of task forces will investigate and report on the leading issues confronting Canada. Next year at this time, Canada's prime minister will have a report on border issues based on comprehensive, non-partisan research that can provide solid substance for his first meeting with the new American president, whoever she or he may be.

We've never been so rich, so technologically advanced, and so well educated, but we cannot become complacent and ignore the world beyond our borders. The CIGI series on global challenges in The Record is a clarion call to all of us to understand better the international challenges we face and what we can and must do.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • In addition to his commitment to CIGI, Jim Balsillie is also the founder of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the Centre for Digital Rights, Arctic Research Foundation and co-founder of the Council of Canadian Innovators.