Ken Powell

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Ken has had a national and international business career as an executive with Imperial Oil, Exxon Corporation, and Esso Inter-America. Subsequently, he has been a management consultant with Coopers and Lybrand Consulting, associate director of the Canadian Outward Bound Wilderness School, taught business and public policy part time at Seneca College and worked consulting with CESO.

He has volunteered with many organizations in Peterborough and around the country. Recently he has served as Chair of the Peterborough Regional Health Centre Board of Directors and Chair of the Canadian Canoe Museum, on which board he remains. He has lived in many cities but for the past 20 years has made his home in Peterborough with his wife Penny Rush. Together they have five children and eight grandchildren.

His passions connect to his curiosity, particularly on understanding the world in which we live and Canada’s place in that context. That means he travels extensively around the world and certainly across Canada. He has chosen to paddle on many Canadian rivers and lakes. Photography is one other driving passion in his life, and you will see him with his gear on all those journeys.

Q: Can Canada provide an example to the world through its own actions and values on how a sovereign state can deal with the next generation of challenges? A corollary might well also be, “Can Canada, the country in a political sense, and its peoples, reach full potential?

A: There is an element of timing implicit in these questions with respect to Canada’s position in the world, and in particular its closest neighbour, the United States. For the near future the US has retrenched from its traditional role of defending democracy and promoting equal opportunity. Furthermore, economists speculate on a US recession by 2020 – along with another divisive election. It will be very difficult for the US to find some balanced positioning in a political sense, as this requires a capacity for compromise – something the country seems incapable of achieving. It also requires an acceptance of the idea that public purpose can be achieved through government, a concept apparently unacceptable to many Americans.

Going beyond the US, one finds samplings of immense difficulties around the world. Russia’s economy remains moribund, depopulation a reality, and the country driven by a leader running out of options. The leader of China, President Xi Jinping, will be at the end of his term in 2020. Demographics, environmental and human rights issues will challenge that country. Europe is pressed with multiple tensions, including Brexit, excess populism and continued Middle East unsolvables. Central and South America never seem to live up to expectations; Brazil is mired in tremendous political tensions; Mexico is dealing with Trump, corruption and drugs. Multiple tensions exist around Asia, including North Korean mischief, Japan’s demography and India’s education levels. One could amble around the world in a similar fashion and find few countries with leadership possibilities.

Canada has, in its 150th year, a timely opportunity to play an influential and positive world leadership role. We have so many advantages, among which include a stable political/parliamentary and legal system; a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that works and is imbedded in both the law and the country’s psyche; a country with immense natural resources, including water, minerals, food and hydrocarbons; stable financial systems with strong banking enterprises. The country emerged from the 2008 financial debacle with the best economy among the G7 countries.

But Canada needs to resolve some intractable internal issues. There are economic ones (improving our productivity measures; expanding our globally competitive possibilities; doing something bold and strong on inspiring entrepreneurism and the longer-term, private sector growth side; finding the correct balance between environmental realities and effective long term use of our massive hydrocarbon resources, etc.) 

But there is one long-standing issue that Canada needs to address before it has the moral authority to lead. That issue is the relationship it has with its Indigenous population. Cold statistics measure the extent of the problems: unemployment, poverty, disease, suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence, imprisonment and the extraordinary level of homicide and disappearance of Indigenous women. But it’s more than statistics that must be addressed. It is a mind set related to long standing inaction and inertia(even if some of it is well intentioned) along with certain ill-conceived past actions.

The inactions relate to unresolved treaty resolutions, the slow moving course being taken by the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, and real action resulting from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that explored Canada’s dark history of abuse at residential schools. It also relates to past actions that have resulted in First Nations, Metis and Inuit losing land since the arrival of Europeans, as epitomized by Canada’s BNA (Constitution) Act of 1867 which put “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” under the control of the federal government. This was then followed by the 1876 Indian Act, which made Indigenous peoples the responsibility of the federal government and seriously limited their activities.

So we have our own house to put in order and achieve internal reconciliation if we wish to take a more international leadership role.

Coming full circle to the concepts behind the Connected By Canoe initiative by the Canadian Canoe Museum and the Community Foundations of Canada, it appears that the process resonated with those that participated. The discussions along the river both in the canoe and in the various communities visited, and especially the Blanket Exercise, which creatively covers 500 years of Canadian history since the arrival of Europeans, were engaging, thoughtful and hopeful.

The idea of mixing people up and allowing an extended dialogue to take place can be meaningful. The canoe can be a proxy for any number of initiatives that gather together a mixture of peoples. The ensuing discussions don’t have to be structured for value to emerge. Sometimes the outcomes are simple in nature: friendship, understanding, reconciliation and respect.

The challenge will be to take the essence of the “Connected” experience and translate it into actions beyond the river. By “essence” I would suggest that the following be emphasized: the canoe utilized as a truly unique Canadian symbol (whether an actual canoe or a proxy); the unstructured dialogue; the mixing of Indigenous with other cultures, with the mix including coast to coast to coast representation, young and old, male and female, and any other such polyglot representation necessary to explore problems and gain ideas. It will also be necessary to explore where these conversations can take place (for example schools, public forums, the many not-for-profit boards across the country).

Finally it would be helpful to develop some mechanism that over time draws this all together and focuses the process on seeking potential solutions/alternatives. Some actionable outcomes should be sought. This process would be only one strategy for getting our house in order, but it could be an important one.

In this way also, we Canadians can build on our inclinations for tolerance, compromise, dialogue, our own unique brand of multiculturalism, and “peace, order and good government” and achieve something meaningful and sustainable.