What follows is a sketch of futures work in Canada over the last six decades. If you have access to documents or vivid memories from this period, please contact Ruben Nelson.
Explicit and focussed thinking about the future emerged in Canada in the 1960s – as it did in the USA and in Europe. For example, what may have been the first formal futures conference was organized at Queen’s University in January 1960. A few years later the Pearson Government established the Economic Council of Canada (1963) and the Science Council of Canada (1966). Both has a mandate to think into the future. In 1967, the Government of Alberta established the Human Resources Research Council (HRRC). The HRRC undertook the first formal futures research project in Canada – a Delphi study of the future of Alberta. One of Premier Lougheed’s first administrative acts in 1971 was to reduce the budget of the HRRC to one dollar.
In 1970, the Government of Canada began a 2 year study of the future of social policy. By mid-decade, the Advanced Concepts Centre, Environment Canada had become a major player within the federal system. It sponsored early work in climate change, appropriate technology and conversations with Canadians about the future. It also commissioned the world’s first application of the concept of paradigm change to whole cultures and forms of civilization. In mid-decade, the Urban Ministry published ten booklets in its Urban Prospect series. The Government of Quebec was also a major sponsor of futures work during these years. In 1976, the Canadian Association for Futures Studies (CAFS) was founded. CAFS quickly became the focal point of serious futures work in Canada and a major connector of Canadians with futures work in other countries.
The 1980s began with a bang for futures work in Canada. In July 1980, CAFS and the World Futures Society (WFS) co-sponsored a conference of almost 6,000 persons in Toronto. It is still the largest futures gathering held to date. However, this energy was not to last. Overall, the commitment to futures work that had been building during the 1960s and 1970s tapered off during the 1980s. Towards the end of the decade, CAFS weakened. For a few years the foresight torch was held by the Transformation Research Network (TRN, 1982). An exception was the multi-year Post-Industrial Futures Project undertaken by Ruben Nelson as a multi-client study. It was the first formal Canadian research project into the long-term change and evolution of whole forms of civilization. To date, this type of futures research has not been replicated.
During the 1990s, the serious interest in futures work dimmed even further. The Economic Council, the Science Council and CAFS all died. TRN became less active. Two exceptions occurred in Alberta. One was the Calgary Into the 21st Century Project of the City of Calgary and its Chamber of Commerce. It spawned Calgary’s bid for Expo 2005 and the Calgary Information Port initiative. The other exception was the two year Capitalizing on Change Project. It was the first endeavour in Canada to wed cross-sectoral futures work with citizen engagement. From this effort, three organizations emerged: The Alliance for Capitalizing on Change, The Capitalizing on Change Foundation and Foresight Canada.
Since the dawn of the new century, there has been a slight uptick of interest in futures work. The Ottawa-based Synergy Foresight Network has come into existence. Horizons Canada has emerged within the federal system and some formal commitment has been shown by both the Governments of Alberta and Ontario. In 2009, the Alberta Research Council appointed the first person in Canadian history to the position of Vice-President, Foresight. Sadly, the position has since been abolished.
One of our friends and colleagues, Fred Thompson, wrote a personal history of futures work in Canada – Looking Back on the Future. It runs from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Fred Thompson’s Book on Canadian Futures. As far as we know, this is the only book that covers the development of futures work in Canada.