Nov. 6, 2019

Political rivals Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien discuss Canada’s biggest challenges and opportunities

O’Brien Institute for Public Health hosts former prime ministers at fundraising luncheon
Former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, left, and Stephen Harper
Former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, left, and Stephen Harper share a stage in Calgary on Oct. 31. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

While Canada faces legitimate challenges coming out of a divisive federal election, two of its former prime ministers stress that our country remains a global example of opportunity, prosperity and civility.

On Oct. 31, Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien, ideological rivals and political opponents, shared a stage at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary for Where Does Canada Go From Here? A Conversation with Two Prime Ministers, hosted by the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“When you talk about the types of problems that are confronted everywhere, it’s very difficult. Here we are an example. We need more Canada in the world,” Chrétien said to more than 450 guests who attended the event.

From pipelines, to equalization, to western alienation, Harper and Chrétien examined many of today’s biggest political challenges through the lens of their long political careers. When it comes to the future of Alberta’s oil and gas industry, particularly building pipelines to export Canadian oil to world markets, Harper says there is global appetite for Alberta oil.

“Everywhere in the world, United States, Europe, Asia  — if we can get our oil to tidewater, they will invest in it, they will buy it. The only place in the world where there seems to be some questioning of that is in this country,” he said.

While Chrétien agreed that it is in the interest of the Government of Canada and its people to market its natural resources, in the face of many layers of opposition, he says that can be easier said than done.

“Mr. Harper was prime minister for 10 years. There was no pipeline built through B.C., or going to the United States or to the East because — I don’t know — but it was not built,” he said. “It was too complicated, it was a minority government — there was always a reason. I don’t blame you, I’ve been in government, but it is the reality that the pipelines were not built.”

Jean Chrétien, left, Stephen Harper and Deborah Yedlin

Jean Chrétien, left, Stephen Harper and Deborah Yedlin at fundraising luncheon.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

With increasingly polarizing political rhetoric becoming the norm, the two prime ministers showed how very different political leaders are able to discuss issues openly and objectively, says Dr. William Ghali, MD, O’Brien Institute scientific director. “Although they respectfully disagree on many topics, it is clear that both former prime ministers put the interests and well-being of Canadians first.” 

Discourse, politics and well-being are intrinsically and necessarily linked, says Ghali, adding that this is why the institute must foster these kinds, and this level, of discussions.

“With the recent election, the future of Canada is on our mind. It was an honour to host the coming together of two of Canada’s great statesmen to discuss some of the most challenging issues facing Canada today — many of which affect, either directly or indirectly, the health of our populations.”  

The re-emergence of Western and Quebec alienation were issues the former prime ministers agreed shouldn’t be ignored in the wake of rising global nationalism. 

“In terms of how tough our conflicts are, I don’t want to minimize them — the conflicts that we’re talking about that affect Alberta and Saskatchewan, these are damaging our livelihoods, these are materially hurting people all over these provinces and I think ultimately they are going to hurt people all across the country,” said Harper.

While acknowledging Canada’s challenges, Harper echoed Chrétien in praising the nation. “You know, the United States is a marvelous country, but a person of no means, no connections, of any background has so much more opportunity in Canada than even in the United States. It’s inconceivable in the United States that a Jean Chrétien or a Stephen Harper would ever have been president,” he said. 

Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper spoke at the luncheon

Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper spoke at the luncheon shortly after Canada’s federal election.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Where Does Canada Go From Here was a fundraising event for the O’Brien Institute, an organization that donor Gail O’Brien and her husband, David, remain proud to support.

“Health care in the 21st century has become prohibitively costly,” says O’Brien. “New ways of delivering care and a focus on prevention have become an imperative, and we felt this institute, through its research, could make important inroads in improving more efficient and effective systems of health-care delivery, new models of care such as care at home, and sophisticated new ways to create knowledge enabling the prediction of illness, and guiding prevention strategies.”

William Ghali is a professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta at the CSM.

The O'Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary supports excellence in population health and health services research, realizing the benefits of such research by informing community, policy and health-practice stakeholders. The institute's membership includes more than 500 multidisciplinary researchers from 13 Cumming School of Medicine departments and nine other University of Calgary faculties, such as Nursing, Veterinary Medicine, Kinesiology and Arts; health professionals in Alberta Health Services; and research users and policy-makers from municipal and provincial institutions. As an institute, we share a vision of "Better health and health care" reflecting our two priority research areas of Improved Population Health and Enhanced Health Systems Performance.