“We’re fated to live in interesting times”
By Pascal Zamprelli
To those with an interest in such things, the name Antonia Maioni is synonymous both with incisive political analysis and insightful policy research. As Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), she has bridged the worlds of realpolitik and academe as very few can. As she prepares to leave her post at the end of the year, she sat down with the McGill Reporter to share some insights on where the Institute, and the country, is headed.
Have you thought about seeking a third term as director of the MISC at the end of the summer?
Well, I’ll be sticking around McGill. But I became Director of the MISC on July 1, 2001. So 10 years and two mandates are probably enough. It’s good for institutions to renew themselves occasionally. I’ve outlasted [founding Director] Desmond [Morton], believe it or not.
What do you plan to tell your successor?
I think that what’s important to recognize in the MISC is that it’s a real opportunity for someone to make a difference, not only on campus but in the wider world of public debate. It’s been an opportunity for me that I am very happy to have had. It’s changed my own academic career, and hopefully that’ll be the same for the next person coming in.
How has the MISC evolved since you began?
My job coming in was to consolidate what had already begun. It was a fairly new institute, still quite young, with an original and unique mandate to encompass teaching, research and public education. We had a solid foundation and we wanted to build it to last. I think that the members of the administrative team, our program directors Nathalie Cooke and Elsbeth Heaman, our interim director Will Straw, and the active support of the Faculty of Arts and our advisory board, has helped us succeed in doing that. Our teaching program, undergraduate courses, graduate fellowships and research agenda have all grown and prospered. We’ve had generous benefactors who have helped build our endowment, and new visiting chairs and fellows to add to the mix.
We’ve also been successful in making and consolidating more linkages with colleagues and departments not just in the Faculty of Arts but also across the campus. In our conferences and events, we’ve partnered with the School of Architecture, the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Agriculture and the Faculty of Law. In that sense, the MISC has grown in its reach across the university.
What about the issues the MISC explores?
Desmond Morton’s tenure [1994-2001] was very much marked by questions surrounding the referendum debate and its aftermath. But I think the years that I’ve been here have been about questions that really get at the core of not only the relationship between Quebec and Canada, but more generally what’s going on in terms of our body politic and the future of the country.
It is perhaps fitting then that your last major conference with the MISC, in March 2011, will go even beyond our borders and explore US-Canada relations.
The Canada-US relationship is, whether we like it or not, the most important relationship Canada has, both politically and economically, in the world. And much of how we define ourselves we do in relative terms to the US. In terms of searching for Canadian identity or thinking about issues that are important to us, a lot of those traverse that particular relationship.
The way we’ve developed this particular conference is to organize it around conversations. We’d like to ask the people who are important players in that relationship to talk to each other across that border. This is what the MISC tries to do all the time, to bridge and build relationships. We try to be the nonpartisan arena where people with differences of opinion are encouraged to talk to each other, and not just debate in the sense of scoring points, but rather to really have a dialogue happen.
These conferences have not only helped advance thoughtful public debate, they have also raised the MISC’s profile.
I think we’ve been successful at making the MISC brand something that’s not only well known inside the Roddick Gates, but that also has much wider national reach. Some of that has been done in the way that we have organized the conferences, as well as our public education.
I also think it’s due to the media relying on the people here to provide rigorous, evidence-based analysis. Because it’s been a very tempestuous time in Canadian politics – a lot of the things that matter to Canada have been really widely debated in these 10 years that I’ve been here.
What do you mean by “tempestuous time?”
We’ve seen all kinds of things over the past decade: changes of political masters both in Ottawa in Quebec City, minority governments, the creation of new parties, debates about essential policy issues like health care, and huge questions about parliamentary procedure, for instance. It’s not been a time of repose, in other words.
On that note, what do you make of the [three federal and one provincial] by-elections held on Monday?
What we have to remember is that by-elections are thermometers, but they’re not barometers. They’re indicative of what’s going on but they’re not necessarily predictive of what will happen next.
The Conservatives picked up a Liberal seat and the Liberals picked up an NDP seat. What does this tell us about the “temperature” of Canadian politics today?
Well, voters are getting rid of incumbent parties. That’s one of the lessons. Incumbent parties have to be careful about how they go into campaigns. With respect to the NDP loss, if we’re not going to have minority governments forever, I think some voters are thinking about what that means in terms of how they make choices at the ballot box.
But are minority governments a bad thing?
Minority governments are not bad or good; they are. You can’t pass a value judgment on minority governments – they’re the will of the people translated through our electoral institutions. They’re not bad or good in and of themselves, but in the way they can be used by the political players in them.
What about Premier Jean Charest’s by-election loss? Was there a message for him there?
If he can’t see it, he’s not reading the tea leaves. The message is that people are angry. In terms of the thermometer, that was a clear indication of what Charest is up against.
Between Charest’s troubles, those of his Ontario counterpart Dalton McGuinty, and the resignations of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, it looks like we’re entering a new phase for federal-provincial relations.
This is an important time in intergovernmental affairs because we’re moving toward 2014, which is a key date in the renegotiation of the Health Accords. So the people around the table in that kind of a negotiation, their institutional memory is important, as is their political memory. So it’s a new day for that kind of a relationship.
Given your research on health care, will you be a part of that national discussion leading up to 2014?
I’ve spent my academic career looking at health-care reform, in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, so I know that’s where I’ll go next – to pursue the kinds of research agendas that I’ve been too pressed for time to be able to do while running the Institute – and raising small children.
What policy-makers in the provinces are interested in now is the politics of the process of health care reform – not just the content of policy but also the strategy. Obviously, health policy is not just about what’s right and what’s good; it’s also about how you navigate the political minefield.
So there will be plenty of fodder for more of that rigorous political analysis?
We’re fated to live in interesting times. I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.