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Marc Garneau was an honouree at the Annual Testimonial Dinner Honour Roll 2024.  Garneau’s remarkable career has included being a naval commander, an astronaut and a cabinet minister.

Here is his acceptance speech:

First of all, I want to thank the Public Policy Forum for this honour and I also want to congratulate my co-recipients.  

As a federal minister, I had the pleasure of interacting with Janice [Charette] and with Murad [Al-Katib] on a number of occasions, so I know them already. I even came to the attention of Paul Wells — not usually coming off very well — although he did write a nice piece about me on my retirement so, thank you very much, Paul. 

During my career, I worked in three very different jobs, each of which played a role in shaping my views — perhaps I should say my biases — when it comes to public policy. So, allow me to throw out some challenges tonight. 

I joined the Navy at 16, wanting to serve. Throughout that career, I often questioned whether Canada’s navy was up to the task of defending our country and contributing adequately to our military alliances. That preoccupation would resurface again during my last job at Foreign Affairs. Given our location on the planet, Canadians don’t feel particularly threatened, but the question is are we pulling all the weight that we should be pulling on the world stage? My answer? Not enough to be taken as seriously as we would like to be. In the end, of course, governments decide on priorities — and must live with the consequences.  

My second career was in space — first as an astronaut and then as president of the Canadian Space Agency, where I began to understand just how important space was for Canada. 

Communication satellites bring us together over vast distances. GPS satellites tell us where we are, and weather satellites tell us what’s coming our way. Earth-observation satellites show us the effects of climate change and of natural disasters.  

Prescient Canadian leadership and vision, beginning in the 1960s, made Canada a leader in space in the 20th century. Why? The answer’s very simple. Because we realized just how much space technology could help us in our daily lives. Are we now falling behind as a spacefaring nation, or will we keep our foot on the gas because it’s important and because we’re good at it? Again, it’s a government decision. 

Seeing our planet from above offered me a unique perspective and changed the way I view our earthly challenges. I’m now, I have to admit, more preoccupied with global issues, some of which I consider to be existential. I’ve seen the damage we are inflicting on our planet by driving climate change. I’ve seen the Amazon forest burning. I’ve seen soil being washed down rivers into the sea due to deforestation, and I’ve seen great pawls of smog over China, California and the Mediterranean. Earth is our home and unfortunately, there is nowhere else for us to go. Does humanity have the resolve to deal with this challenge? 

My last career was in politics — and here I have to say that I’m really more of a civil servant by nature than a politician. Basing decisions on policy has always been what’s important to me, not the politics of it. 

I held the job of Transport minister for five years. Above all, I viewed Transport as an economic portfolio. Canada is a trading nation. In the face of ferocious competition, how well we move our goods across the U.S. border and through our ports to the rest of the world determines in no small measure our prosperity as a country. Transportation efficiency was my primary focus — no easy task, given the size of our country, its difficult climate and its vast infrastructure-challenged North. Perhaps that’s why I’m more sympathetic to our transporters than many feel they deserve. 

2024 Testimonial Dinner Honour Roll live blog 

My second ministerial post was at Foreign Affairs, a job I held only briefly before I had to step down. My most important concern? Our belated engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Throughout its history, Canada has focused mostly on its neighbours to the south and across the Atlantic. We are now in the Indo-Pacific century and Canada is playing catch-up. Our foreign policy needs to be more proactive.  

My last assignment in politics was as co-chair of the special joint parliamentary committee on medical assistance in dying — a job that was intellectually and emotionally demanding.  

While our committee made recommendations to the government, I came to the conclusion that changes to the Criminal Code to address medical assistance in dying have occurred in our country not because the federal government led on this file, but because Canadians like Sue Rodriguez, Kay Carter, Nicole Gladu and Jean Truchon went to the courts and forced it to act. Again, governments have choices and ultimately either lead or follow in their policy decisions.  

Let me finish with this thought. Nothing focuses your mind like sitting on a rocket about to unleash seven million pounds of thrust. You have to believe in what you are doing and have a certain tolerance for risk.  

That’s how I’ve tried to lead my life and it’s what I’d like to leave you with. Let’s not shy away from every risk as we develop the policies and vision that will move our great country forward in this century. We can do some great things if — on occasion — we move out of our comfort zone. 

On that, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a privilege to serve my country and, I might add, an extraordinary ride. Thank you very much. 

Listen to Marc Garneau on WONK: On the highs and lows of space exploration

Hear from more PPF honourees:

  • Hyman Solomon Award honouree Paul Wells spoke on the importance of journalism: ‘When politicians go around us, are they doing it to get the truth to you by a shorter path?’
  • Emerging Leader Award honouree Raven Lacerte discussed the national movement she launched to end violence against women: ‘I am standing up for my daughters. Who are you standing up for?’
  • Jayna Hefford described launching the wildly successful PWHL: ‘It’s not about hockey. It’s about changing society. We’re creating change for the next generation.’
  • Murad Al-Katib pushed for a more ambitious Canada: ‘I want to scale businesses and I want the future to be there for our generations to come.’
  • Janice Charette extolled the privilege of a life in public service: ‘We need to celebrate those that are actually in the arena.’
  • JP Gladu explained how Indigenous nations are key to unlocking Canada’s potential: ‘The Canadian balance sheet is starting to shift. Which side of the ledger do you want to be on?’