‘I don’t think people recognize the importance of policy’: Donner Prize nominees are a cross-section of Canadian policy problems

A resident talks with a health-care worker in a COVID-19 infected ward at Idola Saint-Jean long-term care home in Laval, Que., Friday, February 25, 2022. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Public policy sounds to most ears like an abstraction. It is research papers, abstruse language, and wonky discussions.

To André Picard, the Globe and Mail’s health care columnist and Donner Prize nominee, it is the scaffolding around our lives.

“I don’t think people recognize the importance of policy in their daily lives, how it affects how they get care and don’t get care. So, to me, it’s all about that. It’s about what does this mean to the public? How do systems matter to people?” said Picard, in a recent interview on the Hub Dialogues podcast.

“I’m kind of obsessed with systems, about administration, things that people don’t really pay attention to even though they’re really important,” he said.

Picard’s book, Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada’s Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic, is one of five books shortlisted for the Donner Prize, which will be presented at a gala dinner in Toronto on Tuesday evening.

The other nominees are former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, for his book on value and values; Dan Breznitz, for his book on innovation policy; Stephanie Carvin, for her book on threats to Canada’s national security; and Carol Ann Hilton, for her book on Indigenous leadership, participation, and contribution to the Canadian economy.

Carvin appeared on the Hub Dialogues podcast this week and explained why her book calls for a complete reassessment of threats to Canada’s security.

“I think when we have new and scary situations, we [reassess] out of fear; we do so in a reactionary kind of way. And that’s something else that I’m trying to warn against, which is that we need to ground our responses, strangely enough, in empathy. This may seem counterintuitive because maybe we don’t think of CSIS as the most empathetic organization, and there are many historical reasons for that, but really, from a policy response, this is what we need,” said Carvin, who also said she was excited to see her book on the shortlist for the prize.

“You know honestly, they say it’s an honour to be nominated, and I really mean that. I’m up against some crazy, amazing competition, some just brilliant authors, and just to even see my name out there is like winning the prize itself,” said Carvin.

In a year that featured the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a reckoning about Canadian residential schools, and sluggish economic growth, the shortlist represents a cross-section of the country’s ongoing policy problems.

“I’m especially pleased with this year’s shortlisted books, which cover timely and critical topics—innovation, equitable economic growth, Indigenous economy, national security, and the crisis in elder care,” said David Dodge, who chairs the jury that will choose the winner.

The shortlisted books were published in 2021 and the winner receives a $50,000 prize, while the other nominees each receive $7,500.

Previous winners have included Donald J. Savoie in 2015 for his book about what government excels at and what it should leave to the private sector and Jeffrey Simpson in 2012 for his book on Canadian health care.

The prize has been awarded for more than 20 years and often highlights lesser-known authors who “make an original and meaningful contribution to policy discourse.”

The Donner Canadian Foundation was established in 1950 by businessman and philanthropist William H. Donner, as means of “encouraging private initiative, independence, and individual responsibility” in Canada, contributing more than $150 million to more than 2,500 projects across the country.

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