In 2017, to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary, the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, organized a conference on promoting diversity and inclusion. The idea came from a concern about the growth of populism, protectionism and xenophobia around the world. It was felt that a Canadian narrative about the benefits of an open society could provide a counter-balance to the growing rhetoric in the other direction. Notwithstanding our challenges, particularly with respect to treatment of indigenous peoples, Canada is an example of a society that has benefited immensely from being open to trade, open to migration and open to investment.
What became the Victoria Forum ended up attracting about 500 people “to develop ideas for a better world.” As a partnership between the University of Victoria and Global Affairs Canada, the inaugural Victoria Forum brought together academics, policy makers, business leaders and civil society to identify solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. It also built partnerships with a wide range of government and non-governmental organizations, with complementary areas of focus and united by a common desire to have a positive impact. Our fundamental assumption is that pluralistic societies require inclusive institutions, where power and benefits are widely held, in order to create the conditions for inclusive and sustainable socio-economic progress.
Following its successful launch three years ago, the Victoria Forum has taken on a life of its own. We have created a formal structure, with internal and external advisory boards, and put together a project team. We have also defined our mission – to promote evidence-based conversations and creative thinking, to develop innovative ideas and actionable solutions to contemporary and urgent environmental, economic, and social challenges.
The Victoria Forum has hosted and supported other events, including an enhanced citizenship ceremony for new Canadians, and a dialogue on reconciling ways of knowing between indigenous peoples and western scientists. The plan is to intersperse support for such other events with signature Victoria Forum gatherings.
A number of key principles have been established to guide the work of the Forum:
- Developing solutions, rather than assigning blame;
- Promoting diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, geography and other dimensions;
- Including different perspectives and world views, but with a reliance on evidence rather than opinion.
Moving into 2020, a major Victoria Forum gathering was being planned for November, before Covid-19 disrupted everything. A partnership between the University of Victoria and the Senate of Canada was established. As “Canada’s house of sober second-thought” the Senate was seen as a perfect partner for this initiative, involving policy makers but stepping back from overtly partisan politics. The theme for the conference was defined as “Bridging Divides: Turf, Truth and Trust,” with the event structured around economic, social and environmental divides.
Once the pandemic hit, it became clear that a face-to-face gathering was not possible so the major event has been postponed until November 2021. In the meantime, we have moved to a digital format where a Virtual Victoria Forum will be held in November 2020 and a series of webinars has been launched in the interim, running every two weeks, to seed the discussions for November and build momentum. The theme for 2020 has been adapted to “Bridging Divides in the Wake of a Global Pandemic.”
The theme of bridging divides is a reflection of our concern about global events that are pulling people apart rather than bringing them together. The effects of the coronavirus have been to expose and exacerbate existing fault lines in our societies. The virus has had a differential impact both between and within countries and its effects will be long-lasting, for example on the increase in the number of people living in abject poverty, the disruption to children’s education, stresses on multilateral cooperation, and rising debt burdens. In order to recover from the effects of the virus we will need to both address the divides that have widened as well as the ones that are no longer top of mind but have not gone away, such as climate change. The objective should be to rebuild better, rather than attempting to restore the previous status quo.
Over the past few months, nine webinars have been offered (with recordings available on the www.VictoriaForum.ca website) on topics as diverse as our shared future in the wake of the pandemic, trust in multilateral institutions, the power of sport to bridge divides, the great reset, trust in globalization, the role of cities, systemic racism, truth and science, and the future of business. Future webinars will cover topics such as impact investing and philanthropy, migration, and bridging gender divides. Panellists have been drawn from Canada and abroad, from private and public sector organizations, from think-tanks and social enterprises. We have used the virtual format to bring in visionary leaders and thinkers to engage in powerful, moderated discussions.
We believe that it is essential for business to be part of these conversations about the nature of the world we live in and how to make it better. Without business at the table, it is not possible to develop and implement solutions, and that is not in the best interest of business or anybody else. We believe that it is unusual, but invaluable, to have a business school leading this type of initiative. Business schools have often shied away from engagement in public policy but we assert that they should be more active in pursuing a greater sense of purpose for both selfish reasons (to enhance our legitimacy and strengthen the societies in which we operate) and moral ones. Business schools are well equipped to promote such efforts as they leverage our core skills, our research, our external orientation and our partnerships with others.
As we continue this journey, we welcome you to join us. Please participate in our webinars and join us at our Virtual Forum in November. Together we can make the world a better place.
Saul Klein is Dean of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria and Chair of the Victoria Forum.