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

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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.

French-language debate suggests a new dynamic in Conservative leadership race

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Aside from the French-language debate on Wednesday, it was a relatively uneventful week in the Conservative leadership race, but next week marks a major deadline.

June 3 is the cut-off for membership sales for potential voters. Anyone who wants to vote in the leadership race will have to purchase a membership by 11:59 p.m. ET next Friday.

After the deadline, the campaigns will shift from membership acquisition mode to a widespread effort to get out the vote. The new leader will be announced on Sept. 10.

In today’s roundup, we’re focusing entirely on the French-language debate, with a brief summary and some reaction from pundits and Quebec media.

Quebec debate

Wednesday’s French-language debate featured the “pseudo-American” Pierre Poilievre facing off against the “little coalition” of Jean Charest and Patrick Brown.

The other three candidates were on stage, but barely.

As expected, Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, and Leslyn Lewis struggled with language difficulties during the debate, reading responses from their notes and mostly staying silent during open debates.

Wednesday night showed Poilievre testing out a more mellow tone than his usual adversarial manner, although he did accuse Brown and Charest of forming a “little coalition” against him, as both candidates focused their attacks on Poilievre throughout the night.

In his closing remarks, Charest warned about Poilievre’s politics of slogans and attacks, accusing the Ottawa-area MP of American-style tactics and of being a “pseudo-American.” As in the English-language debate, Charest criticized Poilievre’s embrace of cryptocurrencies and his attacks on the Bank of Canada, arguing that it was a distraction from uniting the Conservative Party and the country.

Poilievre fired back at Charest about his recent employment by the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, demanding to know how much he was paid by the company, giving Charest his least comfortable moment during the debate. A similar moment played out at the English-language debate and Poilievre has been hammering that line of attack ever since.

The debate featured a raucous crowd that ignored instructions to stay quiet, similar to the
English-language debate in Edmonton, although Charest was much more popular with the crowd that gathered in the Montreal suburb of Laval on Wednesday. At one point, two sections of the crowd battled with competing chants of “Poilievre!” and “Charest!”

Le Journal de Montreal focused its coverage on the brief exchanges between the candidates on Quebec’s secularism law and the recently proposed language law, which limits the use of English in the courts and public services.

This race has seen a shift in attitude toward Bill 21, the secularism law that was passed in 2019 and which bans many government employees from wearing religious symbols while on the job. While candidates in the previous Conservative leadership race in 2020 tiptoed around the law, all the current candidates have said they oppose it, although Poilievre has said he would decline to challenge it at the Supreme Court.

Some pundits noticed that Poilievre has been devoting almost as much attention lately to Brown as to Charest, possibly suggesting a new dynamic in a race that has been viewed as a battle between Charest and Poilievre.

“I note that Poilièvre spent almost as much time pushing back against Brown’s attacks than against Charest’s. Which seems to indicate Brown is a factor in this race, thanks to his strategy of selling huge numbers of party memberships to new Canadians,” wrote political columnist Paul Wells, in his Substack newsletter.

Almost all French-language media pointed out a moment of levity in the debate when Lewis criticized Poilievre’s embrace of cryptocurrencies.

“Mr. Poilievre is in favor of digital cash to hedge against inflation. I don’t agree with him. He is amongst the potatoes,“ said Lewis reading her notes and triggering laughter in the room.

Le Journal de Montreal approvingly described the phrase as “very Quebecois” and the National Post said Lewis drew “a supportive laugh” from the crowd.

It would have been a relief for Lewis, who mostly spectated during the debate. Le Journal de Montreal quoted former Stephen Harper adviser Yan Plante on the language skills of Baber, Aitchison, and Lewis.

“Their French is more than rough, it’s painful. Their level of French is not adequate to be on stage,” Plante said.