Stephanie Nolen: How the world sees Canada is not what you think
The following is a transcript of an acceptance speech given by Stephanie Nolen at the Public Policy Forum’s Testimonial Dinner Awards and Honour Roll on April 27, 2023 in Toronto.
Thank you very much for this, it’s a huge honour and I appreciate it very much. In the somewhat struggling world of journalism these days, it’s very nice to see journalism recognized.
I had the chance today to have a brief visit with my pal Stephen Lewis, who is a great Canadian, whom many of you will know and have worked with. And I told him I was coming here tonight, and he said, Hyman Solomon, Michelle and I knew Hy Solomon. He was a decent guy and a hard-working reporter. And you know, honestly, if I had to choose an epithet, I would take that. Those are words that I would be proud to have on my tombstone, ‘decent and a hardworking reporter.’
I have been very privileged to have the opportunity to speak to people in a lot of countries, as you just heard, often in the most difficult moments of their lives and extremely privileged to be trusted by them with their stories. I’ve also been very lucky – I was very lucky in my years at the Globe and Mail, and it’s equally true now that I work for the Times – in my readers, because readers are willing to come with me into those stories and to engage.
I was very lucky in my years at the Globe to work with some stellar people, many of whom are here this evening. I don’t ever for a minute lose sight of that. Until early this morning I was in Tanzania – I was sitting in a village in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania and talking to people about their lives. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and there’s never a day that I don’t feel astonished that I get paid for this. But it is extremely nice to be recognized in this sense for impact, because one does hope, as one as one reports, as one writes, that people are listening and maybe finding something of value in the work.
I think if you cover the kind of stuff that I cover, I always think if people could see what I see, if they could hear, if they could meet the people that I meet, they might come to think that it would be possible and maybe a good idea for some things in the world to be different. So I very much appreciate a recognition for having an impact on policy. As a last thought, I wonder if you would let me be presumptuous enough to make a request of you.
As you’ve heard, I’ve spent most of my career outside of Canada. I’ve recently come home. For those of you who work in public policy, or who are public policy adjacent, let’s call it – in the couple of years that I’ve been living back in Canada, it’s become clear to me that for a lot of people, their perception of how we are viewed from outside – (And so again, I’ve been living outside Canada for three years, but writing back for a Canadian audience, which is a sort of unique position) – so a lot of people, I think, kind of froze back on blue helmets and peacekeepers and sacks of wheat that say ‘gift of the people of Canada.’ And I can tell you that that is, in fact, not how Canada is viewed by a great many of the people that I meet in the Global South in particular.
And very often their only understanding of interaction with Canada comes through a corporate actor – usually extractive, mining, gas, oil, but also these days, increasingly infrastructure, solar projects, hydroelectric dams, bridges – and those companies are there in a corporate capacity. But the people that I meet, that I speak to about those stories, for those people, they’re just ‘the Canadians,’ right? There’s not really a distinction. And usually, by the time it’s got to the point that I’m there, that relationship has not been great. Something has gone wrong. Very often, it’s an environmental degradation issue. Sometimes it’s a human rights issue. Often it’s both.
And what people say to me is: ‘Would this be allowed in your country? Would this company be able to behave this way in your country?’ And, often I’m in very remote places having these conversations. I’m in an Indigenous community in the absolute middle of the Amazon in Brazil. But the world is small these days, right? I meet large numbers of Indigenous people who have had the opportunity to learn, either directly or through networks, from Canadian Indigenous people. And Lord knows, that relationship is not, we have not got this figured out. We have not resolved that problem. But there is an impressive body of jurisprudence that exists in Canada about Indigenous people and access, control over resources on their territory, and obligations of governments at various levels. Again, not a solved problem. But if you are Brazilian or Paraguayan or Peruvian or Mexican, it looks like a big improvement, right?
So they say to me: ‘Would this be possible in your country?’ They already know the answer, which is often ‘no,’ right? Not permissible by law or outside the bounds of our social contract. And so while I recognize that the question of what is the responsibility of a Canadian corporate actor, what is the responsibility of a business that has chosen the Vancouver Stock Exchange or the TSE as a place to list themselves? Those are questions of sovereignty, and often questions about models of economic development that are super complicated, I absolutely recognize that. But I think that if that is the lens through which so much of the world actually now sees Canada, then I think that’s a really rich vein for a conversation about our role in the world. And I feel like in the few short years I’ve been back, that conversation is not as robust as it could be. So that is the thought that I wanted to leave you with tonight. Just put that on the list when you’re done with all the things we’ve already heard that we need to do. Maybe put that one on the bottom.
Thank you very much for this. I appreciate it very much. And I would like to say one extra thank you, which is to my partner, Meryl, who makes what I do literally possible. And to my very tolerant children who put up last week with me trying to help with their French grammar homework over a really bad cell phone connection from a village in Tanzania. They’re all very tolerant and I appreciate it very much. Thank you.