Bringing a premier's perspective to the classroom

- October 30, 2017

Darrell Dexter leads the policy seminar. (Danny Abriel photo)
Darrell Dexter leads the policy seminar. (Danny Abriel photo)

Darrell Dexter handled plenty of difficult public policy questions during his years as the premier of Nova Scotia. Now, he’s wading back into the fray — only this time it’s Dal students asking the questions.

Dexter runs a roundtable class on policy formulation for graduate students in collaboration with Dal’s MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance, where he was recently named an honorary distinguished fellow.

Held weekly on Tuesdays this fall, the class brings students face to face with Dexter and various other experts to discuss and debate some of the toughest issues facing Canada today. Topics range from how to craft better immigration policies to the future of food production and beyond.

The course provides a unique chance for individuals like Tari Ajadi, a master’s student in political science, to learn directly from those who are, or who have been, on the front lines of policy making over the years.

“I don’t think you can understand a process unless you participate in it,” says Ajadi. “This course allows you to really engage in the process of policy-making, dealing with these policy problems that don’t have easy solutions.”

Exploring big issues

One class in mid-October centred on how changing demographics in Canada, particularly the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, raise new challenges for the country’s health care system.

Dexter and the students were joined by four experts, including Gaynor Watson-Creed, the acting chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia, and Richard Saillant, an economist formerly employed in the Privy Council Office and Industry Canada in Ottawa. Dal experts Peter W. Vaughn, a former N.S. deputy minister of health and wellness, and Katherine Fierlbeck, a Dal researcher and fellow at the Healthy Populations Institute, were also brought in to provide perspective.

Participants discussed the Nova Scotian context in detail, with students asking questions on everything from the potential benefits of restructuring the province’s health system to the need for more political capital to make positive changes to health legislation.

The question-and-answer roundtable format, with students literally sitting side by side with the experts, allowed for a genuine and fruitful discussion — one that put students’ interests at the centre of the debate.

Insights and perspectives

It also gave students a peek into the sometimes-unpredictable nature of the policy process where misinformation can be a problem. For instance, Dexter shared a story about how a U.S. journalist mistakenly characterized Canadian legislation on assisted suicide and resuscitation during a discussion on health policy he attended years ago.

“He said: ‘They have death panels, they decide on life and death,’ and there were gasps in the room – it was just accepted by the audience,” recalls Dexter, referencing a political term used by U.S. politician Sarah Palin to claim (falsely) that panels of bureaucrats would be formed as part of pending U.S. federal health care legislation to judge who was worthy of medical care.

Dr. Vaughan replied: “It was the same thing, Darrell, when I was in St. Louis two weeks ago — bright intelligent people, well educated, but firmly believe we have death panels.”

With new perspectives like this, the course appeared to give students a better sense of what they might really face in their careers.

Panelists also take part in a public discussion each week that happens just prior to the class, which is open to the public. Policy Matters, as the panel series is called, is chaired by Kevin Quigley, director of the MacEachen Institute.


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