Dec 7, 2021



The past few years have underscored the urgency and the opportunity to forge global strategies that enhance Canada’s hard-won reputation as a middle-ranking power. During this time, a series of overlapping economic, environmental, geopolitical, and technological shifts have raised the potential benefits and costs of Canada’s global engagements. Third quarter reporting from Statistics Canada shows that the national economy gained momentum as COVID-19 related health and travel restrictions were relaxed in 2021.1 This month, Canada’s unemployment rate dropped to the lowest level since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic 21 months ago.2 However, the country’s fourth quarter (2021) outlook remains uncertain due to the damaging effects of extreme weather and flooding on southern British Columbia’s critical infrastructure and low-lying communities. Preliminary cost estimates are not yet available, but experts are predicting that the long-term effects might be catastrophic for smaller communities.

This economic uncertainty extends to Canada’s long-term prosperity which depends on maintaining favourable trading relationships with the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which remain engrossed in an epic geopolitical struggle. The world’s two largest economies are working hard to create the domestic and international conditions that will give them a significant peer competitor advantage. And yet, as the great power rivalry plays out globally in all five strategic domains (ie., space, air, land, marine, cyber), new pathways for knowledge diplomacy are opening in ways that would have been unimaginable in recent years. As an example, the global COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed unprecedented levels of discovery-led learning and collaborative networking in the form of a life-saving vaccine technology. 

A strategic window of opportunity exists for Canada to secure a more resilient future. But only if policymakers, working across jurisdictional boundaries, cultivate the interdisciplinary frameworks and strategic intelligence products that support informed decision-making among political, business, and community leaders. Mobilizing critical knowledge resources in an efficient and effective manner is central to building the strategic capabilities that Canada needs to remain relevant and resilient in this century. 

Altered States 

Canada is experiencing historic change on multiple fronts. In addition to rising geopolitical tensions, the current strategic environment is shaped by public health threats as well as rising inflation and national indebtedness. As well, the disruption generated by exponential technology innovations and the power of “tech giants” is eroding the foundation of state sovereignty.³ Furthermore, the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has been an extraordinary lesson that Canada’s fate is shaped by globalizing forces which are not easily anticipated, understood, or managed. In fact, the initial federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a fundamental rethink of the federal “whole of government” approach that recently seemed stable and unquestionable. 

Deep structural change is inevitable if Canada is to create the conditions for a more secure, sustainable, and democratic future. Canadians, especially younger demographic cohorts, are losing confidence in market-driven policy solutions. They demand that political and business leaders commit to making the world more predictable and fairer at a time of increased turbulence, all tall order. Meanwhile, labour and business interests continue to lobby hard for government interventions to protect vulnerable economic sectors (ie., tourism, food services, hospitality), distribute wealth and jobs more equitably, and to shore up consumer confidence. Amidst these complex developments, the role of government is becoming more interventionist and less facilitative. 

An intensification of global competition and cooperation in the years ahead will undoubtedly necessitate a robust public policy discussion about Canada’s resilience to major disruptions and the country’s capacity for social and economic value creation. All government levels (ie., federal, provincial, municipal, First Nations) should adapt to the fact that the strategic and operational decision-making process is likely to be more compressed and consequential. Finding new ways of working collaboratively must be a top policy priority since planning in isolation raises the cost of policy incoherence and strategic inaction. To that end, three “case studies” are used to stimulate a broad-based public dialogue on the adaptive leadership potential and knowledge mobilization capabilities which Canada should develop in short order. 

Agile Governance  

Preparing for the challenges and opportunities ahead means that the political, economic, financial, and social institutions which underwrite our collective security remain adaptive, multi-scalar, and informed by proactive decision-making. Addressing the direct and indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may demand considerable labour and capital shifts between Canada’s main economic sectors.⁴ In 2022, Canada will be under considerable pressure to develop a diversified economic strategy and a robust foreign policy that advances its strategic interests holistically. Performing these functions effectively will demand greater interdisciplinary thinking, agility, and synchronized policy innovation. 

Given the complexity and unpredictability of the strategic environment – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the global patchwork of uncoordinated responses – improved capacity in early detection and interoperability with trusted partners is essential. Canada’s ability to withstand the effects of future “shocks” will be contingent on the quality of strategic intelligence disseminated to political, business, and community leaders. The “need to share” requirement will grow exponentially in response to the proliferation of open-source intelligence (OSINT) products and services (ie., social media platforms, ubiquitous data collection, high-resolution photo imagery) as well as friendly competition from private sector security companies, reputable think tanks, and independent knowledge brokers. 

All government leaders must learn how to become more adept at agile decision-making with the growth of “smart city” technology and enhanced connectivity facilitated by social, physical, and virtual networks. This month, the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency, reported 235 ransomware incidents involving Canadians between 1 January and 16 November 2021.⁵ More than 50% of the known cyber-attacks (many go unreported) were directed at critical infrastructure targets including those in the energy, health and manufacturing services. The average cost of a cyberbreach in Canada is estimated at $6.3 million. Strategic intelligence reporting indicates an escalating cybercrime threat while these activities continue to generate sizable profits at relatively low risk to global threat actors. Because of the vulnerability of Canada’s knowledge economy, mechanisms for scaling-up distributed knowledge systems that connect experts, emergency responders, and local community leaders need to be activated with military-like precision and discipline when threat levels approach a critical threshold. 

Canadian policymakers must be realistic about the challenge of securing an open and democratic society and double-down on the design of “fit for purpose” governance systems. Ensuring that our highly respected institutions publicly demonstrate how they meet the twin responsibilities of secrecy and transparency is both a political and an operational prerequisite. Moving forward, the performance test for national policy makers will be their ability to repurpose Canada’s siloed managerial culture and to accelerate the transition to a more ambidextrous public service. The United Kingdom’s Integrated Review (2021)⁶ offers a logical starting point on how to instill greater foresight and agility into Canada’s security and intelligence (S&I) community as well as the public service more generally. 

Natural Disaster Management 

In mid-November 2021, the southern region of British Columbia experienced a natural disaster when record-shattering rainfall caused massive landslides, large-scale flooding, critical infrastructure damage, and livelihood loss. The environmental disaster, the worst in BC’s history, was triggered by an extreme precipitation event known as an “atmospheric river.” These moisture trails stretch for thousands of kilometers and are crucial to the global water cycle.⁷ 

Like the heat dome and wildfires last summer that resulted the deaths of hundreds of people, November’s atmospheric river exposed the limits of BC’s preparedness to deal with low-probability, high-impact events. The landslides and flooding destroyed regional highways and railway tracks connecting the port city of Vancouver to inland towns and settlements. Fortunately, only a few people died in this disaster. But thousands more people were evacuated from multiple impact zones, forcing them to leave behind their homes, farms, and businesses. Some inland and First Nations communities are in remote locations which has further complicated the emergency rescue operations. 

On 17 November 2021, provincial authorities used the extraordinary power of the Emergency Program Act to enact temporary measures like restricting physical access to the impacted areas and rationing critical supplies such gas for vehicles. Almost immediately, the provincial government was criticized by opposition politicians, journalists, and academics for failing to activate Alert Ready, Canada’s cellphone emergency communication system. Questions are being raised about why expert recommendations and repeated warnings were overlooked. However, it is important to acknowledge that tragedies of this magnitude rarely have a single “point of failure.” The catastrophe may reflect inept political leadership, a systemic failure of knowledge mobilization, or a complex mix of known and unknown factors. 

What is clear is that regional and local authorities in BC must be resourced to develop baseline emergency response capabilities for a spectrum of expected and unexpected risks. Ensuring these capabilities are interoperable with BC’s First Nations (ie., Emergency Planning Secretariat) and non-profit organizations (ie., Canadian Red Cross) will help to reduce the economic burden on the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), which has been deployed to more than 50 domestic operations across Canada since 2020.

A public inquiry into BC’s emergency response mandate and the decision points around the State of Emergency seems imminent. Initiative-taking measures to prioritize in the interim include targeted funding to update provincial floodplain maps, fill vacant emergency response positions, and to build climate resilient infrastructure. The appointment of a Chief Risk Officer (CRO) to advise local decision-makers on large-scale threats and to coordinate emergency response efforts with federal Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams would also be a productive next step. 

Workforce Development 

The geo-political and geo-economic pressures facing Canada in the coming decades will be daunting. The known drivers of change are both complex and interlinked. International relations are becoming more transactional and uncompromising. National borders in parts of the world are likely to harden as democracy promotion softens. Territorial borders might be redrawn as “proxy wars” are waged in fragile countries suffering from years of energy insecurity, institutionalized corruption, and fiscal mismanagement. A new constellation of trade relations, digital connectivity, and travel corridors is already reconfiguring global mobility patterns and trends. A reasonable assumption is that data, information, and knowledge will flow more freely “inside” this complex economic geography but may encounter more friction “outside” of these highly regulated spaces. 

Millions of occupations around the world will be established, repurposed, upgraded, and retired as developing countries and businesses around the world learn how to compete effectively in the knowledge-intensive global economy. Political and business leaders that work jointly to cultivate a realist perspective and anticipate future opportunities before they become obvious to their peer competitors, will enjoy a strategic advantage. Conversely, countries that fail to recalibrate their economic statecraft, institutional learning, and workforce development plans in accordance with the current global rebalancing will have fewer strategic options to choose from. The 21st century will not be kind to complacency, wishful thinking, or slow-moving consensus-based management. 

Canada’s relatively small and aging population base means that the country will have to become significantly more innovative to improve its global competitiveness ranking. Anticipated demographic, economic, technological, and environmental disruptions will increase the demand for “actionable” intelligence on strategic economic sectors (ie., higher education, urban sustainability), the geographic distribution of “super jobs” (ie., life sciences), and the market value of cognitive skills. Finally, there will be a premium on life-long learning strategies as Canadian students and professional workers cycle in and out of different careers while adapting to changes in the global workforce structure. 

For that reason, the federal government has commited to leveraging Canada’s “diversity dividend” through a Future Skills Plan. It has also raised the immigration levels to more than 400,000 per year. Empirical research suggests that a 1% increase in ethnocultural diversity is associated with an average 2.4% increase in revenue and a 0.5% increase in workplace productivity.⁹ But knowledge gaps relating to the experience of diverse communities and the underlying causes of local socio-economic disparities persist. Part of the reason is that matching qualified candidates with high-value jobs is complicated. The quality of the social infrastructure (ie., places and organizations that foster mutual trust, accidental encounters, and casual interactions) can often be a determining factor. While formidable, this challenge can be overcome by centering large and mid-sized cities within federal and regional economic development strategies. Additionally, city-to-city partnerships aimed at facilitating knowledge diplomacy, growing institutional learning capacity, and curating flexible and inclusive planning structures can be a vital source of innovation excellence. ¹⁰


Canada’s social and economic future requires on a multifaceted strategy for competing successfully in the global knowledge economy and strengthening its resilience to a bewildering set of global challenges. Thinking more systematically about Canada’s adaptive leadership potential will provide valuable insights about how the country can leverage its influence as a secondary power. The scale of the federal required action is too great for a whole of government (WoG) enterprise designed for a more predictable era. Translating policy into action will depend on targeted investments in organizational learning. Whether Canada successfully transitions to a more sophisticated model of social and economic development depends on how well it cultivates multi-directional knowledge sharing, strategic partnership engagements, and investments in human capital development. Skills development will augment Canada’s strategic capabilities to the extent that they become integrated with higher orders of learning. Proactive and sustained action is essential because Canada’s international standing as a secondary power cannot be taken for granted.

1  Statistics Canada, “Gross Domestic Product, Income and Expenditure, Third Quarter 2021,” The Daily (30 November 2021).

2 Statistics Canada, “Labour Force Survey, November 2021,” The Daily (3 December 2021).  

3 Ian Bremmer, “The Technopolar Moment: How Digital Powers are Shaping the Global Order,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 100, No. 6 (November/December 2021).

4 Statistics Canada, COVID-19 in Canada: A One-Year Update on Social and Economic Impacts (March 2021).

5 The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE), Cyber Threat Bulletin: The Ransomware Threat in 2021, Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (December 2021).

6 Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (March 2021).

7 Pinna Sustainability, The Future of Atmospheric Rivers: And Actions to Reduce the Impacts on British Columbians (2014).

8 Major James D.H. Rock, The Canadian Armed Forces and Domestic Operations: Unbalance and Overstretched?” Master of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College (2021).

9 Bessma Momani and Jillian Stirk, “Diversity Dividend Canada’s Global Advantage” Centre for International Governance Innovation and The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (24 April 2017).  

10 Tim Campbell, Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn, and Innovate (2012). New York: Taylor and Francis.

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