Cover

A Land of Excellence

Few people are aware of the impressive list of Canadian inventions, from foghorns to zippers

Peter C. Newman July 1 2000
Cover

A Land of Excellence

Few people are aware of the impressive list of Canadian inventions, from foghorns to zippers

Peter C. Newman July 1 2000

A Land of Excellence

Cover

Essay

Few people are aware of the impressive list of Canadian inventions, from foghorns to zippers

Peter C. Newman

In any country that has more trees than people, like this one, excellence tends to strike by inadvertence.

Yet, we have more than our share.

So deferentially inclined that we would rather raise killer bees than sing songs of self-praise, we tend to downplay our homegrown excellence. That’s what makes us feel inferior, not the absence of excellence itself. Indeed, the onset of the millennium finds this country overflowing with leaders in every field of endeavour, from pioneering diabetes research to the world of country music divas. Excellence may have collective consequences in raising national prospects, but its essence is exercised individually. One by one, we are finally creating an exciting and highly competitive new global identity.

One obvious mark of excellence is invention, the intuitive leap required to think up a new idea that turns into useful innovation. The lengthy list of Cana-

dian firsts is impressive, and even when we don’t invent the ultimate product—such as the Internet—we come close. In 1968, a group of National Research Council scientists patented a touch-sensitive screen and pioneered an extraordinary interactive computer system to test and educate students with learning disabilities. Based on a central computer in Ottawa, the computer linkup, one of the first of its kind, connected educators across the country and revolutionized

the teaching of the children. Since those early days, Canadians have so overwhelmingly taken to their computers that we log on to the Internet for 15 hours a month and exceed the U.S. home penetration figure by 40 per cent to 32 per cent. According to a blue-ribbon, government-private sector roundtable report released earlier this year, 180,000 Canadian jobs will be created by the Internet in the five-year period ending in 2003, while another study says domestic

We are overflowing with leaders in every field of endeavour

e-commerce will reach nearly $ 148 billion in 2004.

The galaxy of firsts that few Canadians know about include the steam foghorn, washing machine, zipper, paint roller, electronic synthesizer, carpet sweeper, kerosene, electron microscope, tuck-away-handle beer cartons, advanced space-vision systems and, in 1860, a mechanical skirt lifter that helped Calgary ladies cross muddy streets. And, of course, there are the ones most of us do know about: insulin,

Pablum, the snowmobile, Superman and Trivial Pursuit. That list leaves out the telephone, which every Canadian schoolchild knows was perfected by Alexander Graham Bell in Brantford, Ont. Bell modestly credited his 1876 invention to not knowing enough about electrical theory to realize the phone couldn’t work. He was a true Renaissance Man, having also pioneered the gramophone, film sound tracks, the electric eye, iron lung, a saltwater converter, a pre-X-ray method for detecting bullets inside bodies, a functioning hydrofoil craft, a vacuum jacket to ease childbirth, Canada’s first manned flight, and a new breed of sheep that gave birth to more than one lamb.

Excellence in Canada has always been measured according to one criterion: would it make the cut in the United States, that empire to the south of us that validates so much of what we do and dream. Until very recently, the meaningful accolades were: “She studied at Harvard, I bought it on Fifth Avenue,” “We got our tan in Palm Springs,” “His book was respectably reviewed by The New York Times,” ‘ She had her hysterectomy at the Mayo.”

Economies of scale still allow Americans to pick the winners in many categories, especially the entertainment industry, which depends less on quality than on numbers. But excellence is now sprouting independently on our side of the 49th parallel. Within the global economy that obeys no rules except those of the Darwinian jungle, Canada has been remarkably successful. In two of the past three years, the Canadian economy has grown faster than that of the United States. That’s a remarkable show of excellence, because 40 per cent of our gross domestic product is exported. In other words, what we do and what we make is competing successfully in world markets that are open to all comers on increasingly

equal terms. One example: Ontario is about to become the number 1 auto-producing region in North America, surpassing Michigan, which now accounts for 18 per cent of the continent’s vehicle manufacturing.

We must be doing something right.

What we’re doing right is educating our young. Except for our tragically dysfunctional health-care system, no publicsector activity is the subject of harsher criticism than education. Yet a higher proportion of Canadians is successfully completing postsecondary education than the citizens of any industrialized country on earth. Michael Dell, the computer wizard, recently rightly observed that “Canada is a hotbed for new technologies, with an advanced communications infrastructure and a Net-sawy population that makes it a leading competitor in the New Economy.

Despite the volatile political climate that has created a leadership vacuum in Ottawa, Canadians are taking their future into their own hands and declaring that this will be their century. Thirty million characters in search of an author, we have on this Canada Day, 2000, realized something highly significant: that Canadian excellence is not an oxymoron.

Being Canadian has become less of a journey than a destination. We have arrived at last. El