Speech - guest speaker: Mr. Robert Lacroix, rector, Université de Montréal A blueprint for for building tomorrow's Quebec

A blueprint for for building tomorrow's Quebec

Robert Lacroix, rector, Université de Montréal

May 18 th, 2004

It's always an honor and a pleasure for me to be invited to address the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.

In the past few years your dynamic organization has been an example we can all look up to as a credible forum for new voices and new ideas for Quebec. For guest speakers like me, it's a great opportunity to join this public debate, a healthy and necessary exercise in any democracy worthy of the name.

Before I get into my main message, I'd like you to hear what some of the young researchers now working at the Université de Montréal have to say. I want you to hear them for yourself, and not just because they're at my university – though as rector I'm always proud to show off the best and brightest of our younger colleagues – but also because I truly believe that in their words, their faces and their voices, you'll see the Quebec of tomorrow. The future of Quebec society is not only in their hands, it's very much on their minds.

These young researchers are doing things today that weren't being done at all in the Quebec of ten or twenty years ago. They're working on molecules and other concepts that those that came before them could scarcely have imagined in their wildest dreams. They're working in new fields of knowledge that didn't even exist when I myself entered university in the 1960s.

They're innovating to beat the band and there's no doubt in my mind that the 21st century will be dubbed the “Century of Innovation” thanks to people like them.

So what should we be doing to make Quebec an active player in this brave new century? What steps do we take today to build the successful Quebec society of tomorrow? What doors should we be opening? And, above all, what keys should we be providing our future leaders with?

These are questions every man and woman in Quebec should be asking because the answers will determine our future place on this planet.

It seems to me, however, that important questions like these don't often make the grade in public debate today. I sometimes get the impression, and I know many among you share this view, that we have run out of inspiring public projects in Quebec. Sure better management of hospital emergency rooms and shorter waiting lists for surgery are important, but these are not the kind of elevating challenges you can build a better society on. Upgrading government is also another necessity, but not the kind of task that stirs the heart and makes people rally round the cause. These are all fine examples of good management or good housekeeping, if you will, worthwhile for sure but a society that contents itself solely with such day-to-day chores is a society without a dream. And a society without a dream is a society without a future.

I'd like to take this opportunity today to present you with a dream for Quebec we can all put our hearts into. The idea can be summed up in one word: knowledge.

A knowledge-based society

The very structure of our world today is based on knowledge. We've systematized the ways in which knowledge is generated and used as a tool for growth and development. Knowledge has, in fact, become the key raw material in which we all trade. It's the gold in “them there hills”…and it's our gold to do with as we please.

All of this represents a major paradigm shift – one that is already changing the way our economy works, the way it grows and evolves and where and when that growth takes place.

The reason is simple: the more applications that knowledge has, the more it mutates and morphs into new products to meet special needs. Back in Aristotle's time, all knowledge was one: it was called philosophy. In today's Information Age, knowledge has a thousand and one faces and they keep changing every day.

Which is why everything that relates to the production, dissemination and promotion of knowledge is a critical issue for our society. An issue that has far surpassed the borders that once contained it in our institutions of higher learning. It's an issue that affects businesses of every size and shape, both in the public and private sectors, our cultural industries and our manufacturing industries – every level of our society is profoundly affected by how we use knowledge.

Quebec-based creativity

What role can Quebec play in this new knowledge-based world of virtually limitless potential?

Well, Quebec certainly has a great deal to offer. But our chief strategic advantage is our creativity. Our native creative talent never ceases to amaze me, perhaps because I see it as the end result of all the efforts we've made since the Quiet Revolution to become what we are today: a society that's open, pluralistic and – above all – innovative.

Given our relatively slight demographic weight, and Quebec 's distinctiveness in terms of language and culture, our society could have remained a prisoner of its own history. Instead, we used our historical background as a springboard for growth. It may seem odd to some, but I believe Quebec is the only real self-made community in North America. We are indeed a society of our own invention.

Our roots have served us well – and I don't mean just our French-Canadian roots. Our being different, which was long perceived as a handicap, has become a major asset, forcing us to satisfy our own needs on our own terms.

In short, we've made a virtue of necessity. We've raised our natural resourcefulness to the level of superstar status. The context in which we have evolved in the past forty years has made us more creative and more innovative out of necessity.

This creativity is one of our major assets today. By creativity I don't mean merely the ability to do things differently – anybody can do things differently with a minimum of ingenuity. By creativity I mean the power to do something that is completely different. Not every society gets an opportunity to do that.

Once the idea of the knowledge-based society started to take root, our native creative capital began producing impressive results. Many of our recent success stories are clearly born of Quebec-based creativity nourished in a knowledge-based society. The stage productions of Robert Lepage and the computer-designed miracles of Softimage immediately come to mind. As do the acrobatic flights of fancy of the Cirque du Soleil or the soaring aeronautical prowess of Bombardier. Not to mention the Oscar-winning directorial abilities of Denys Arcand or the entrepreneurial genius of Paul Desmarais, Jean Coutu, Lino Saputo, Serge Godin, Robert Walsh and so many others.

You could easily write a whole textbook on achieving excellence Quebec-style. When you think about it, it's remarkable to see how we've fashioned our very own instruments of cultural, scientific and economic development that not only mirror our values but also attract interest the world over. And we stand amazed that we've actually carved out an enviable place among the world's major socioeconomic players all by ourselves.

But now it's time to stop patting ourselves on the back and start thinking about how we can continue to make this immensely productive encounter between Quebec's creativity and the knowledge-based society yield even grater benefits in the years ahead. My biggest fear is that we might not have learned everything there is to learn from this fortuitous convergence of circumstances. It would be a great shame if our recent success stories turned out to be only isolated cases, something to look back on nostalgically at the mid-century mark.

Knowledge is always worth betting on

Banking on our creativity, staking our chances on knowledge – this, I believe, is the winning combination for Quebec today. Knowledge is the best possible stimulus for our creative nature. It increases its value exponentially. I'm absolutely sure, given our situation and Quebec 's unique profile, that any investment in education and research will generate greater payoffs here than anywhere else.

What does betting on knowledge mean? It means making knowledge the center of everything our society undertakes. Knowledge must be our window on the world. It should influence how we make all our decisions, individually and as a community.

We all know that knowledge didn't always enjoy good press in Francophone Quebec. For a long time it was perceived as a privilege for others, even regarded suspiciously by our own elites. In the 1950s, a cabinet minister in the Union Nationale government publicly proclaimed that ignorance was part of a French Canadian's God-given right and that overeducating them would be nothing short of treason.

Thankfully we no longer live in such unenlightened times. Today, we embrace knowledge in all its form, we nurture it, develop it and we promote it from one end of Quebec to the other.

  • Montreal 's overriding ambition, as you all know, is to take its place as a world-class cultural and technological metropolis. The city certainly has everything it takes to do so, even an action plan just waiting to be put into effect. Montreal as a knowledge-based city is not a dream but a possibility that's well within our reach.
  • Quebec City, which until recently survived almost exclusively on government-related activities, now relies increasingly on knowledge-based sectors, such as optics and photonics, to ensure its long-term growth.
  • Even the Beauce has successfully penetrated the North American marketplace and developed a niche in a number of highly competitive fields. How do you explain this success, if not in terms of a daring cross-fertilization of traditional manufacturing sectors with leading-edge technologies and knowledge?
  • Sherbrooke is a model of business-university synergy – with original strategic partnerships that have been cited around the world when it comes to regional development.
  • Sagamie right now is working on ways to improve operations in the forestry and the aluminum industries by drawing on the rich pool of scientific talent at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.
  • Saint-Hyacinthe has become a key location in Canada 's agrifood industry, thanks to the research and development activities in the region, particularly the Université de Montréal Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. There is already an impressive list of projects in the works just waiting for startup capital.
  • The City of Laval, whose high-density knowledge industries have grown significantly in the past ten years, has taken out a symbolic bet on its future by setting up a “Cité du savoir” in the very heart of its new downtown core.

Forging ahead in the foundry of knowledge

I could go citing example after example of recent conversions of Quebec cities and regions into the knowledge-based communities. Daring experiments like these are full of promise. They are full of danger too. They can be fragile and many are still barely out of the nursery stage – a fact we were so rudely awakened to in the Board of Trade's recent “Health Report” on Montreal.

That's why we must create more centers of development, and open a vast foundry of knowledge on a province-wide scale. I believe there is no more urgent project today to help build a better Quebec for tomorrow.

A foundry of knowledge is something I've dreamed of for years at the Université de Montréal. I'm happy to say that after six years of tremendous effort, just such a facility will soon see the light of day.

Yesterday, on the Université de Montréal campus, we inaugurated the J.-Armand Bombardier Building, the first of five new buildings now under construction. It's a magnificent structure in itself, but the real beauty is what you find inside its walls: 700 professors, students and working professionals. And laboratories equipped for niches like nanotechnology – the only ones of their kind in Canada.

The UdeM's foundry of knowledge represents an investment of $60 million for us, not counting the equipment, which is worth $150 million more. When I say “us,” I mean not only the Université de Montréal and the École Polytechnique, but also the Quebec and Canadian governments, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the J.-Armand Bombardier Foundation and the Succession J.-A. DeSève.

At no point did anyone consider the cost of this ambitious project as an expense. On the contrary, everyone saw it as a tremendous investment opportunity with plenty of future spinoffs for Quebec society as a whole.

It's the same way we all should look at the construction of the CHUM. The CHUM is a completely fascinating projet, perhaps the most promising one we have going at this time. It's also a project that goes all the way back to the birth of the Université de Montréal 125 years ago. If it is built on sound lines, the CHUM could become a center for the delivery of highly specialized treatment, research and medical training – a healthcare center that's unique not only in Quebec but in North America as well.

We should always look at projects like these as investments not as expenses, as leverage for Quebec-based medical ingenuity. Not as an accounting problem we have to solve, but as an investment in our future made with resolve.

I'm not talking about an Olympic stadium, or an autoroute. I'm talking about a university hospital center that could redraw the entire healthcare and biomedical research map in Quebec for the next forty years. I'm talking about a place for training researchers and professionals in the healthcare sector, in the most active university in this field in Canada. I'm talking about a hospital that could bring together a critical mass of medical, biomedical and pharmaceutical industries that would mean a healthier future for the people and the economy of Montreal.

Conclusion:A knowledge and creativity policy

In the 1960s, Quebec launched major hydroelectric projects, taking on all the associated costs without batting an eye. I say that the James Bay for us today is the knowledge industry.

Just as Quebec in the last century put its immense water reserves to work producing hydroelectric power, so Quebec in this century must put its vast stores of creativity and imagination to work producing the kind of innovations that will win respect for what we do around the world and the financial rewards that go with it. But this can only be achieved when we harness our new natural wealth within a knowledge-based cultural mindset we all share.

It's up to the Government of Quebec to take whatever steps are necessary to make the most of this new reality by defining, with its allies and partners, the directions, goals and working tools we can use to mine the rich seams of knowledge, creativity and innovation in education and industry. Fortunately we're not starting out from scratch here. Some great work was done in the late 1990s in this respect with the development of policy for science and innovation for Quebec.

An effective action plan must be systematic and cover the three major aspects of knowledge in our time: its dissemination, production and promotion.

The dissemination of knowledge across official or informal networks is essential for enhancing our productivity. The circulation of knowledge opens up exciting new prospects for social and economic players, from small business to the highest levels of government. It's teaching them to be more efficient by showing them more efficient ways to get things done. It's helping everyone to be more tuned in, more open also to what people are doing outside Quebec. Without such mechanisms for the dissemination of knowledge, any society is doomed to decline.

A society that contents itself with merely assimilating the knowledge of others is a society in stagnation. Producing knowledge of our own is our guarantee of a position of privilege in a world that generously awards new knowledge and discoveries wherever they are made.

Of course, it isn't enough to just generate knowledge. We must also put it to work. As Confucius said, “The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it.” While we already have some initiatives in this direction, we need to make our community as a whole embrace what's at stake for all of us in the application of leading-edge knowledge to industry, large and small, and to other public and private sector organizations in our society.

With the constraints we face on any increase in public expenditures and a demographic profile that is not evolving in our favor, Quebec must make some difficult choices for its future.

Among other things, these choices are about:

  • Ways and means of effectively financing our universities
  • Structuring our post-secondary and professional education
  • Public financing of research, aid for research and development, as well as support for high tech firms
  • Major investments in university hospital centers
  • Terms and availability of venture capital
  • Our cultural industry, which is an economic player of major importance

These are the reasons why we need a bold and daring blueprint for our society now more than ever – a plan that will provide a coherent framework to help us not only to make the right choices but also to mobilize the public in the right direction.

Let's give ourselves every chance to succeed. Let's be, in the coming years, fanatics for knowledge. That's where the future lies, and that's the truth. It's up to us to find our place in the century ahead and not lose out by staying put in the century behind.

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