Allan Gotlieb on Canada’s Culture of Ideas

"I think that it is fair to say that the success of the Frontier Centre signals the success of the independent think tank movement in Canada."
Published on May 27, 2009

As a native of Winnipeg I’m pleased to be here tonight to celebrate something that would have seemed improbable fifteen years ago. A thriving think tank in Winnipeg with a decidedly non-statist approach to public policy.

Canada has now more than fifty think tanks or policy institutes. They range tremendously in age, in size and in influence. The older organizations tend to be ones that were founded to study the economy. One way or another, they all undertake public policy research and promote the results in order to influence policy-makers. Their ultimate goal? To improve those policies. Their biggest challenge? To develop a direct line to policy makers. Some think tanks are little more than extensions of government, while others are completely independent, existing entirely on the results of private sector fundraising. These organizations tend to be the most nimble and the most interesting.

I think that it is fair to say that the success of the Frontier Centre signals the success of the independent think tank movement in Canada. As the distinguished historian Michael Bliss has written, “for some years, Parliament, the universities and the national civil service have been increasingly upstaged as centers of political discussion by organizations such as the C.D. Howe Institute . . . and a host of other policy institutes”—to which I would add the Frontier Centre as well as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Fraser Institute and a number of others.

How did this come to pass? How did think tanks and the ideas that emanate from them emerge so strongly in Canada over the past fifteen years?

The answer, in large part, must be private funding. Although philanthropy focused on public policy has been rather scarce in Canada, a fairly small amount of focused support has generated enormous returns in terms of the breadth and depth of policy analysis.

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