Remarks by Richard J. Currie
A Celebration of Generosity: Lord Beaverbrook Luncheon
Fredericton, New Brunswick
November 5, 2010
There have been a number of stories & anecdotes about Lord Beaverbrook over the past few days. And I’d like to begin by adding two from my experience with the man. Last night at the Playhouse we learned that Beaverbrook pushed people to get his own way. My stories are different from those…….. First at the Lady Beaverbrook Residence and then at the Beaverbrook Scholars Dinner...... From these two stories, you can easily see that Beaverbrook liked and respected strong personalities – people who knew what they believed in and would not be “cowed” into submission, by him or by anybody else. What a privilege it was to meet and get to know him, just a little bit. You knew you were in the presence of someone exceptional. Since that time, I have read much about him.
My favourite is by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, in which they report that Beaverbrook got to the heart of the issue quickly, that he was a supreme motivator and that he would not quit when the going got tough. Maybe that’s why he was in the War Cabinet in both World War I and World War II. There is also legions of evidence that he was no saint. But who of us is? Nevertheless, his generosity to the province and especially to UNB is legendary. And we celebrate that today. Beyond the many buildings is the most enduring legacy of the Beaverbrook Scholars, begun in 1920, and whose recipients are always among the most generous of UNB alumni.
Beaverbrook, like many in this room and many in the province was of Scots/Irish descent – and I am proud to be one of them. Perhaps the best description of the Scots/Irish is in David McCullough’s book on Harry Truman, simply called “Truman”. In it, McCullough describes the people in the region of Missouri that Truman came from – essentially all Scots-Irish. Their hero was Andrew Jackson – his famous quote being – “one man with courage makes a majority.” The Scots-Irish are described as “tough, courageous, blunt, touchy and quarrelsome”. And especially – obstinate. And doesn’t that describe New Brunswickers in general, no matter what origin? – Aren’t we all that? I think so. I sure am. To go on, McCullough gives the Scots-Irish prayer. “God grant that I may always be right. For thou knowest I am hard to turn.”
In my remarks today, I intend to follow the advice of Franklin Roosevelt to a young man on speechmaking. He said “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” And I intend to follow my Scots-Irish roots and be, “tough, courageous, blunt – and no doubt some will say “quarrelsome”.
What gives me the right to do all this? To talk about my home province and to celebrate the spirit of generosity?
First reason. My family has been here for what looks like 6 generations. My parents and back to my great, great, great grandparents are all in a Miramichi churchyard. I attended the University of New Brunswick and then graduated from 2 others, one in Nova Scotia, one in the United States. I owe both of them a lot – especially the last one…… But at the end of my business career, when asked to be Chancellor of 3 universities here in Canada, I chose the University of New Brunswick – because it was the first one and it was home. Over the past 7 years, I have learned well the wisdom of T.S. Eliot when he wrote:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”
Second reason. When a boy of modest means from the South End of Saint John becomes, amongst other things, Canada’s CEO of the Year in 2001, enters Canada’s Business Hall of Fame, is called one of Canada’s Top Ten CEO’s of All-Time by the Globe & Mail, a list that goes back to the 1820s, and is made an Officer of the Order of Canada, maybe he has something to say and maybe what he says is worth listening to.
Third reason. He becomes Chancellor of his provincial university and gives millions of dollars to improve its facilities; more millions to endow scholarships for good students who have leadership capabilities who otherwise would not get to university at all or certainly not without severe financial hardship. And he gives more to many deserving cultural institutions across the province.
Well then, let’s start….. To me, generosity comes from two sources – individual or institutional, really governmental. My thoughts on individual generosity are well known: there is just no point in accumulating wealth and some level of influence without making generous use of it. My first exposure to this thought came from Beaverbrook. But when it comes to government it is important today to realize that New Brunswick is a failing province. The latest confirmation came from Standard & Poor’s moving its outlook for New Brunswick from stable to negative. It is a failing province because the rest of Canada has been too indulgent towards it. And like all indulged people or institutions, it has grown dependent on the largesse or generosity of a proverbial rich uncle.
The decades of dependency brought to New Brunswick and all of the Maritimes and indeed accepted by this region comes from a rich uncle called the federal government. The background and evolution of all this has been well examined, especially by Brian Lee Crowley. I encourage all of you to read his outstanding work on the history of a situation which has now become virtually entrenched and is increasingly unaffordable by the uncle and hopefully unacceptable to New Brunswickers.
A few years ago I gave a talk when UNB was in its “Forging our Futures” campaign. In it I pointed out that for all practical purposes Canada today and for some years now has been funded by one province – Alberta. In the past a bit by British Columbia and more by Ontario, but not today. Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador have only recently become “haves” after decades as “have nots”. Where does that wealth come from? It comes from oil. From offshore in Newfoundland and new finds in Saskatchewan to go with the oil sands in Alberta, which are vilified as “dirty oil”.
Canada produces 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 5% of Canada’s emissions come from the oil sands. So one one-thousandth of the world’s emissions comes from Alberta’s oil sands. That doesn’t sound like “dirty oil” to me. Coal-fired power in the U.S. generates 3400 mega tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Alberta oil sands generate 30. Environmentalists call our oil sands “one of the world’s largest single sources of greenhouse gases”. I call that statement “nonsense”. And Alberta’s issues – tailings ponds and water – are “technical” which, as any engineering student at UNB would attest, is another word for “solvable”. The last thing Canada or New Brunswick needs today is to slow down production in the oil sands.
The point here is: what does New Brunswick do with this generosity coming from other provinces? Well, to begin with, about 40% of New Brunswick’s budget revenue comes from other provinces. And what does New Brunswick do? It spends it. And in addition racks up a nearly one billion dollar operating deficit in the last year. That deficit pushed the province’s debt to over $8 billion. So what does it have to show for the generosity, the largesse given to it by other provinces over the years?
As I understand it, perhaps up to 20 percent of the people working in the province work for government at some level. And while they all may be good, solid, hard working people, the fact is that government work adds nothing to the GDP of the province. But that’s how to get a municipal infrastructure that has more than 400 taxing authorities. All of which contributes to New Brunswick having the second lowest GDP/capita in Canada.
New Brunswick is a province with only about 750,000 people. In most cases with a lot of miles between people. As a result, the province does not get any economics of scale – here it costs as much to build a kilometre of road or water pipe or a row of buildings as it does in areas of higher population. But in New Brunswick the volume of usage does not amortize the cost and make the investment economic the way it does in other regions with greater population.
This lack of volume is made worse by governments continually choosing ‘politics’ over ‘economics’. As a result, the province today has a lack of concentration – too many small schools, maybe too many small hospitals, too many small universities. Overall, too much cost relative to usage. Speaking of universities, we have two right here in Fredericton offering in some cases the same courses with two sets of professors and two sets of infrastructures literally only meters apart. Well, all that may be fine if you can afford it. But this province can’t. Soon it will have to face up to this not only on its own but because the largesse from the rest of the country will inevitably slow down.
My greatest fear for Canada is that British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan get tired of shipping money east while having inadequate representation in parliament and decide to leave. Think of it – Canada with Newfoundland and Labrador as the only “have” province.
Let me say at this point that I am not a political person. I am apolitical. Apolitical because the laws of economics don’t change when political regimes do. Apolitical because I have never seen social progress sustained unless it follows economic progress. My interest is only in policy and not in politics. Again it was Roosevelt who noted “You cannot borrow your way out of debt. But you can invest your way into a sounder future”.
This province has spent millions over the years in support of industry that has not worked out. I would suggest that any government would be much wiser to invest that money in support of the education of its people. And the place to begin is with an all-out offensive, now in its embryonic stages, on the staggering rate of illiteracy in the province. While there are many definitions of illiteracy, as far as I am concerned, the inability to read a newspaper and to write a letter is the real-world working definition. By that measure, it appears that over one quarter of New Brunswickers are illiterates.
If the illiterate have difficulty finding work today, think how difficult it will be in the future as we move out of an industrial age into a technology age. Without literacy there can be no training, be it academics or technological. For the province to throw money in any form be it through incentives or reduced taxes to industry without providing industry with a trained work force seems to me to be a reverse order of priorities.
It is heartening to see the New Brunswick Community College now appearing on the UNB campus. Education is not only for the academics. As the son of a tradesman in the industrial age I really understand that – and also the importance of education for the technology age. And I see no way for New Brunswick to improve its economy except through the education and training of more and more of its own people.
Early in this talk I mentioned the Scots-Irish. Let me also suggest you read 2 books on the Scots. The first shows how they went from the poorest country in Europe to become a world leader – it was almost entirely attributable to dramatically improving the education of its people. The book is called “How the Scots invented the Modern World – and everything in it.” Their success in our country is contained in the book “How the Scots Invented Canada” by Ken McCoogan. The way to progress and thence to leadership is well known – it is not new – it is through education.
Generosity not only requires spirit, it requires means. It requires money whether for a soup kitchen or a food bank or scholarships or a new Center on the UNB campus. Somebody pays. And those that pay are called “generous”. That is all very nice. But I am suggesting that real generosity will enable New Brunswick and its people to pay their own way - to put an end to dependency.
Solving the literacy issue alone is not a short term matter. It will not be fixed overnight. The benefits will not be seen for some years – and certainly not within a normal election cycle. But it must be done. Must be done because without that and more academic and technical training the past and present era of dependency will continue. Dependency becomes the way of the future and the future and the future and all futures after that.
Let me end this polemic by asking you to imagine what might happen in New Brunswick if the 40% of its budget that comes from the rest of Canada went overnight to zero. Would a spirit of government generosity continue to exist towards academics when New Brunswick already has as many degree granting institutions as Ontario would have if Ontario had 130 of them? Would Crandall be developed? Would Mount Allison be privatized? Would St. Thomas be privatized or merged with UNB? By privatized I mean completely independent and without government funds, much like the great private colleges and universities in the United States. Should these options be considered anyway? Just in case that 40% really does disappear…….
Finally, in the spirit of generosity being addressed today, I would urge local government, this city of Fredericton, to recognize that UNB contributes over $200 million a year to its economy. And that its support of UNB can be described as “paltry” at best and “pathetic” at worst. Similarly for Saint John and especially for the municipalities that surround it.
As for me, I believe that if you really are a leader, then lives of others should be better because of the influence you’ve had. Nobody ever said it better than Jackie Robinson, one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, when he said “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”
By now, I’m sure all of you are well aware that the University of New Brunswick is 225 years old and is the oldest English language university in Canada. Far more important, however, is that its founding in 1785 was only 2 years after the Loyalists landed in the wilds of New Brunswick. Such was their desire for and appreciation of education for the people in this province. So should it be, even more, for us today……