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Children performing with the Fil-Can ACS Musicians at the Earl Bales Park Arts & Music Festival As Canada moves towards celebrating its 150th anniversary, lessons in resilience, achievement, failure and optimism can help Canadians maintain their bright outlook.

Our Sense of Optimism and Social Engagement

Canadians are an optimistic bunch. When we compare ourselves globally, Canadians report some of the highest levels of happiness in the world—we tie with Sweden in fifth place, clocking in behind other chilly countries like Denmark and Finland. The World Happiness Report, published in 2013 by the United Nations Conference on Happiness, reports that higher “life evaluation” scores can be linked to political freedoms, a society free of grift, and good social support networks.

But happiness surveys capture only our current moment. Reviewing how optimistic Canadians feel can reveal general attitudes about the country’s future, both on a personal and national level. In a 2005 study from the Canadian government, nearly 75% of Canadian reported feeling optimistic about their futures, representing a five-point raise since 1998. Today, Canadians report feeling optimistic about everything from the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff chances to the housing market: there is a nationally-held belief that overall, things are improving.

Peter MacLeod, a partner at the Toronto-based consulting firm MASS LBP, might frame the question of optimism through a different lens. “There are three things that really interest me: the future of responsible government; the citizen’s experience of the state; and the vitality of our public imagination,” he says. In recent years, MASS has looked both forwards and backwards to gain a sense of where Canada might be going: they’ve published a dissertation about Canada’s Centennial celebrations in 1967, and also organized a 2010 conference about the upcoming sesquicentennial in 2017.

“The reason I became interested in the 150th isn’t just because I like fireworks and birthday cake—although those are nice things—it’s that when I was looking for a high-water mark for public engagement and public imagination in this country, anyone would have to look back to 1967 and the centennial.” MacLeod reels off some of the major civic and cultural milestones in the years leading up to 1967: the development of the Bill of Rights, socialized medicine, marriage reform, and the decriminalization of homosexuality, among others. “We had a massive surge of social legislation, accompanied by important symbolic changes: a new flag, a new anthem, the construction of major cultural institutions. We set out, in the decade before the centennial, to address what RBC at the time called the major cultural deficits affecting this country.”Consensus-building and civic engagement are key tools for cultivating optimism.

The result, says MacLeod, was a shift from an Anglo-Saxon and Francophone country into one that was deliberately multicultural. He predicts a similar groundswell of change for the country in the decade after 2017, in which Canadians of all ages take a long, hard look at our relationship with the country’s First Peoples. MacLeod is, of course, optimistic about the undertaking. “In the decade following 2017, we have to reimagine ourselves again for new times. The single most important issue is our reconciliation with our First Peoples. That is an essential, fundamentally hopeful project, requiring the full force of our youngest generation to reimagine the country anew.”

Canada’s youngest generation was the topic of a 2014 survey from Ipsos Reid, and commissioned by RBC, which asked young people ages 10 to 25 for their attitudes about life and the future. The result of the survey, which was the first of its kind, revealed some surprising insights. Girls reported being happier than boys, while boys reported being more excited about the future. 51% of young respondents reported feeling that mentorship was an important factor in gaining knowledge and confidence. And, most tellingly, while most Canadian youth aged 10-13 (90%) and 14 to 17 (82%) self-identified as ‘happy,' a mere seven in 10 youth aged 18 to 21 (70%) and 22 to 25 (70%) reported the same. 

As Lynn Patterson, the Director of Corporate Responsibility at RBC, puts it: “Optimism drops like a stone at 18 and 19.” She calls it an “epidemic,” but that doesn’t mean she’s a pessimist. In 2013, RBC committed to helping one million kids around the world, pledging $100-million to after-school programs and organizations that build self-esteem and sports literacy.

It’s a long-term approach that she hopes will help soften that drop in optimism. “We might be looking at seeds of pessimism that have been sown at 14 that only come to light at 18,” she says. RBC tries to curb that drop beginning with programs aimed at school-age kids, like after-school homework clubs. They continue that support throughout high school and into university with sports clubs, like Learn to Play. “Learn to Play is about physical literacy and making sure kids have the movement skills. We’ve got newcomers in Canada who don’t yet know how to skate and swim, and we’re working on that.”

RBC also focuses on mental health, including an innovative program at George Brown College. “They developed a really visionary plan, that included a student-driven mental health awareness campaign, a Mental Health 101 credit course, better training opportunities for staff, implementation of early mental health issue identification tools and a student mentor program,” says Patterson. RBC donated over $500,000 to the program, which will also include meditation and yoga spaces. (According to the UN, easy access to mental health resources has been an indicator of increased happiness in national populations.) “This is a program to help provide support for young people at a point when they are vulnerable and their optimism is waning.”

Programs that build resilience help kids avoid what Brian Price calls “the pit.” Price is the coxswain for the Canadian National Men’s Eight rowing team, which won gold at the 2008 Olympics and silver in 2012. “The best quote I ever heard was from an athlete who beat me, who said you can’t get too high in the highs and too low in the lows,” Price says. As a survivor of childhood cancer (he was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of seven), Price “always wanted to be six-foot-four,” but his small stature turned out to be a boon when he discovered rowing. “I played sports as a kid, and I was always on the bench, but I did it because I enjoyed it. But when I got into rowing, I thought, ‘Holy smokes, this is perfect for me.’ And all those other experiences will contribute to how well I do that.”

Price believes that true optimism comes from recognizing both the positive and negative sides of an issue. “I’ve found that, when some people say positive thinking, it means not saying any negative. But that’s doing a disservice to the person. My coach was an old-school British guy who would call you out if you weren’t doing something right, but he would also help you figure out how to correct it.” Even losing had an unexpected upside: it taught him that he “never wanted to feel like that again. I know what we have to do in order to achieve.”

As Canada moves towards celebrating its 150th anniversary, these lessons in resilience, achievement, failure and optimism can help Canadians maintain their bright outlook. As Peter MacLeod puts it, “Everyone is essential. Everyone is capable. Everyone has responsibilities, and responsibilities to create vibrant, engaged community.” In short, everyone has something to look forward to.

An interview with Andrea Dicks
An interview with Andrea Dicks
Andrea Dicks is the Managing Director of the Rideau Hall Foundation, an independent charity based in Ottawa. Some of Rideau Hall Foundation’s initiatives include the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship, which builds leadership skills in Canadian post-secondary students; and My Giving Moment, which aims to connect Canadians with opportunities to contribute meaningfully in their communities.

Yonge Street Media: What is the Rideau Hall Foundation? What are some of the programs it sponsors?
Andrea Dicks: Rideau Hall Foundation is a charitable foundation that works across the country to leverage our national spirit, working with a variety of partners to support initiatives to help us to do that. We have four main areas of focus. The first is giving. How do we create a culture of giving across the country? It’s not only money, but also giving your time, giving your talent. How do we help inspire Canadian to recognize that everyone has something to give? The second is learning. It’s quite a broad theme, but one initiative is the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship, which is all about providing a global talent exchange. It’s for students to have experiences that shift the way they’re learning and modify their educational experience. When you look at the way companies build their teams, it’s an increasingly global team. This path helps young people increase their portfolio of experience and move into a world that’s more global. The third area is innovation, which isn’t just simply thinking of the neatest gadget or the coolest app. It’s about how we continue to shift our thinking. We’re launching the Governor General Innovation Awards launching this fall, with the inaugural awards happening this spring. Finally, woven into all the work that we do is leadership.

How does a program like My Giving Moment foster positivity among Canadians?
The current way that we’re activating My Giving Moment is meant to do so in a way that captures attention. We want for people to see themselves in the current campaign. Whether it’s donating blood or clothes, or volunteering, these are things that people will recognize that they could do, or that they already do and could do more. Giving feels good, and I think it’s okay to recognize that we’re getting a feeling a contribution and connection within the community. Connecting that good feeling to yourself and to the time that you’ve given, or the action you’ve done, can have positive reflections throughout your life.

How do you see connecting with like-minded people have an impact on individuals? On the larger community?
Within the scholar’s network, I think that, if you’re good to people, people are good to you. That ripple effect happens. I think that will come forward with the scholars in terms of sharing their experiences with the local community. It’s not a transactional experience. Community is built on shared experiences, and this is a way to do that.

How can Canadians be bump up their positivity and optimism about Canada’s place in the world? What larger conversations should we be having, as a country?
I don’t there’s a simple answer. I think there are many different things that can be done, and that are being done, across the country. I’ve been fortunate to travel across the country to talk to people about the good work they’re doing, and it’s always incredible to what people do to make their communities more vibrant and connected. There’s a deep recognition that giving, generosity, whatever you want to call it, is your spirit. It’s how you operate in the world. Conversations about connection, and building community, and lowering isolation, are happening. How do we ensure that we’re fostering those conversations that bring people together, across the country? How do we get people talking might be the first question, before we ask what are we talking about.