McGill University Model United Nations

The Lieutenant Governor delivered a keynote address at the Model United Nations Conference at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec.


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Bonsoir, good evening, shé:kon.

Je suis ravie d’être parmi vous en cette occasion.

Thank you for the opportunity to join you at this 29th annual McGill Model United Nations Assembly. You’ve given me reason to reflect both on the current state of our world and also to recall the passion with which I embraced the compelling raison d'être of the United Nations.

I am a perpetual optimist. I hold out hope that we have the potential to design a better future for all of us. And it is conversations like this that will advance that cause. Bold new ideas are needed, and the involvement of a new generation in the political process is essential. I am inspired by seeing so many of you gathered here from so many different places. Your passionate interest in how the world works sets an example for all. And I have no doubt that among you are leaders we will turn to in the decades to come, to steer our communities’ and our countries’ shared future.

We live in an increasingly borderless world of blurring sovereignty and security concerns, an interdependent world of integrated economies and financial regimes under pressure, a world of truly remarkable technological change – technologies that can even change what it means to be human.

But we also live in a world of growing alienation between existing political processes and people’s lived experiences and passions. We see regularly the fragility of a world of inequity – a world of indifference. We see it in the frustrating persistence of acts of terrorism, ethnic violence and sudden economic downturns. Unspeakable horror and brutality.

We see it in parts of the world where the “violence of the gun and the violence of the tongue” seem to prevent people from escaping the rhetoric of ideology and history. We see it in waves of migrants escaping from a way of life they can no longer tolerate moving toward an unknown that they hope will be better.

And so we turn to the United Nations - the highest expression of globalization. The concept of an enduring peace is at the heart of everything the United Nations does. We generally think of peace as freedom from war. Certainly when we take up arms we are not at peace. But neither are we at peace if there is not enough food to eat. If there is inadequate shelter. If we are sick and cannot get medical care. If we cannot hope to escape poverty’s grip. In these terms, millions of our sisters and brothers on this planet cannot be said to be at peace.

That vision and idealism of the UN is as important today as it was at its creation. Yet the organization must also embrace renewal and reform. Its universality in defining the norms of civilized relations among states is an asset that must not be sabotaged by the undue influence of power and ideology or the inefficient and ineffective processes of bureaucracy.

I choose to believe that the opening phrase in the UN Charter – “We the Peoples” was deliberate. It means that the UN is everybody’s business – call it collective empowerment. Today it needs the very best that each of us has to offer and I hope that you will lend your thoughts and voices.

And your theme of sustainability - in all its linked dimensions: inclusive economic prosperity, social cohesion, and environmental stewardship - is exactly the right place to start.

In 1992 world leaders embraced the concept of sustainable development. We were asked to imagine real improvements in the health of the environment, a more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources, and a much improved quality of life for more of the planet’s people. It was the politics of hope. A concept so seductive.

And yet – sustainable development, to be charitable, remains a “work in progress. There is clearly a gap between what was negotiated and what has been delivered. Sustainable development remains largely theoretical for the majority of us.  It is often said that two-thirds of humankind fall far short of having a decent quality of life.

That gives some perspective on the global condition, but let me observe that even in this country we are not without challenges. We too have pockets of wealth disparity. There is pay inequity. There are abysmal living conditions, particularly in the North. And there is the emergence of an underclass of people who have precarious employment, who go to bed hungry, and who are—with some justification—increasingly frustrated and angry. There is no room for complacency.

Certainly we must continue along the path of reconciliation with indigenous communities. None of us can be oblivious to the stories of pain and vulnerability arising from the shameful history of residential schools and assimilation.

Learning to live together harmoniously is a long journey. It begins with acknowledging the ancient enduring history of these lands as a site of meeting and exchange among Indigenous peoples, including the Algonquins. And today we are on the traditional territory of the Mohawk People and I want to pay my respects.

We still do not seem to understand (or accept) that there we are headed toward a collision between growing ecological pressures and economic expansion and with it, significant challenges to social cohesion.

Just one example: the nexus of environmental and energy security. How to meet our ever-increasing energy needs and wants in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way is one of the most vexing social, geopolitical and technological conundrums facing the world today.

This sounds like a depressing story. I am reminded of a wonderful Woody Allen film in which he is giving an address at a commencement exercise. He tells the students that they are at a crossroads. One path leads to utter hopelessness and total despair; the other to distinction. And he hopes that they have the wisdom to choose wisely.

Let me assure you that my observations and comments actually come from a place of hope!

In fact, even as the temptation of protectionism and insular thinking threatens our “we’re all in this together” ideal and the global consensus we have fought so hard to build, the recent climate change negotiations in Marrakesh sustain our ambitions. There appeared to be a “collective resolve to decarbonize global energy”. Countries sent an important message that “momentum is irreversible”, being driven not only by governments, but by the evolving science, as well as the action and commitment of businesses and civil society.

And our willingness to work together is surely illustrated by the negotiation of the sustainable development goals. A transformational global policy agenda including a universal set of 17 goals, 169 targets with accompanying indicators of progress and a timetable – was agreed to by all UN member states.

Over the coming days, as you gather in committee to focus on some of the world’s greatest challenges, I am sure that you will be asking yourselves: Why is progress on the sustainable development agenda so slow and even elusive? Why are countries and companies not living up to what they have promised? Why is there a gap between policy and action? Why are we hesitant? What do we need to do differently if we are to succeed on a grander scale?

Certainly sustainable development has many challenges in implementation. It is intrinsically holistic and interdisciplinary. It embodies complexity and value judgments about equity. It is very long term in character. There are no simple and universal solutions.

I would make a couple of observations for your consideration.

The first is that although science and technology are always evolving, we know enough to take the first steps. A sustainable planet is not an unreachable goal.

The second observation is that what sustainability demands is really a change in the way we behave – a change in our attitude to the world. That is the relentless challenge we face – how to motivate attitudinal and behavioural change in both individuals and institutions.

An so I often speak of a contract between science and society – a contract that allows citizens to benefit from emerging science and technology; a contract that mitigates inevitable risk; a contract that acknowledges the values of its citizens. It’s about reconciling scientific excellence with social; relevance. It’s about struggling between short-term politics and long-term public good.

I know that you’ll be discussing various forms of energy, including nuclear power, so perhaps I can offer a real-life example of what I mean.

A number of years ago, I was working on the intractable matter of what to do with Canada’s high-level nuclear waste. Essentially we were asked to propose a system that would meet rigorous standards of safety and security for periods longer than recorded history. No other public policy initiative had ever been challenged to perform over such time frames. Just a little humbling!

During the study the Nuclear Waste Management Organization was often asked: Why is it necessary to consider ethical and social aspects? Surely we seek the best technical response. In its simplest form, the answer is that the public has a right to be engaged in discussion about matters that affect their lives fundamentally.

Actually, the issue of risk is fundamental not only to waste management, but to any decision that has an impact on our environment. While scientists and specialists can articulate the nature of the risk and how it might be mitigated, it is really society that will ultimately decide which risks it is prepared to accept. So values and deeply-held beliefs matter a great deal. People need to feel that they have been empowered, as individuals and as part of a collective that includes those people making decisions that affect their lives.

You are also going to be discussing climate change and indigenous peoples. Did you know that according to a study this past November spearheaded by the Rights and Resources Initiative, approximately one-quarter of the world’s carbon is held in forestlands either owned or traditionally held by Indigenous populations and local communities. And yet, only 21 countries—out of 188 involved in the Paris Agreement—have made a clear commitment to support these populations and communities’ tenure rights, or to support their involvement in natural resource management.

This issue is not simply about making sure these communities are not ignored, but also about mobilizing their ecological knowledge and experience of how best to support the forests that are so crucial to our carbon uptake.

In each case sound science and technology will be brought to the table – but that is not enough. Empowering people to take collective responsibility to be part of the decision-making is an essential ingredient for success.

When we engage citizens in the decision-making process, it’s not just a matter of rights—it is actually about making better decisions. People who are affected by policies bring special insights and on-the-ground knowledge to the table. Astute decision-makers, in both the public and private sectors, are wise to recognize this.

Just as importantly, policies and decisions developed in an environment of trust and confidence are much more likely to draw public consensus. Participants who feel integral to a process will be motivated to help sustain its outcome.

There will always be trade-offs, winner and losers. Even when it comes to development that we see as sustainable, there is always the risk of loss in certain communities—of a way of life, of shared identity, of work that has brought prosperity to families and regions, of ecosystems that constitute the very environment we are looking to save.

In a democratic society, the inclusiveness and integrity of the process by which decisions are taken will be key to success. Only a process that considers diverse views and seeks out multiple perspectives in genuine and transparent dialogue will be considered trustworthy of protecting the public interest. These issues demand engagement, not just one-way consultation.

So I congratulate you for choosing Collective Empowerment as the theme for this assembly. I am impressed that you are developing what the poet John Keats called “negative capability”: the ability to look beyond one’s self, and in the process, identify with others. Your determination to empathize with other points of view will serve you well in years to come, no matter whether you pursue politics or any other path.

And in advance may I thank most sincerely Ginny Tan and all who are involved with making McGill’s Model UN such a great success—the students, partners and sponsors and the many distinguished Canadians and McGill alumni who support this remarkable initiative.

And if you will permit me – during this year in which we celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary of confederation – a word about Canadians. I have been witness to the contributions of Canadians throughout the world: their service to the international community; their sense of responsibility, generosity and courage.

We Canadians have been blessed by a wealth of natural resources, relative stability, commitment to social justice and a basic respect for each other as human beings. As such, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to contribute to a world in need of thinking, caring and ethical individuals.

To achieve a world that works for everyone will require uncommon dedication, creativity, and energy. I know that you will contribute. We cannot, must not, be mere observers.

Je vous remercie encore une fois de m’avoir invitée à m’adresser à vous ce soir. Je vous souhaite à tous une assemblée fructueuse et enrichissante.

Merci. Thank you. Nyá:wen.