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  • Brett House


With a B.A. in economics from Queen’s University, I was selected in 1994 as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and headed abroad for a year of study at the University of Cape Town (UTC) in South Africa. The year helped me launch a quarter-century career as a macroeconomist.

Inspired by my experiences in South Africa, I have worked to make financial markets and economies more stable and effective at producing better living standards for people in Canada and throughout the world at the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and now at Scotiabank in Toronto.

Rotary’s scholarship programme was established in 1947 “to further international understanding and friendly relations among people of different countries.” Since then, over 30,000 young leaders from over 100 countries have participated.

Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars aren’t just academics: they’re embedded in the communities they visit as goodwill representatives of their countries and to do presentations on their research and their homelands. Across South Africa, I talked—sometimes in French or broken Afrikaans—about how the world needs ‘more Canada’ and I tried to share a few modest insights for its post-apartheid transition.

Elements of South Africa’s apartheid system were based on Canada’s Indian Act and reserve system. As economic and political protests ripple periodically across both countries, the reconciliation of settler cultures and economies with their indigenous counterparts remains an ongoing and incomplete process. I was able to see some of these struggles firsthand as Nelson Mandela campaigned for and then became South Africa’s first black president.

At UCT, I helped to teach a crash course in algebra and calculus to black students who, in protest against the apartheid regime, had boycotted an educational system stacked against them. That made real for me the investment it will take to compensate for centuries of school-based discrimination.

I got my own crash course in basic civics when I joined other volunteers to help prepare South Africans for the April 1994 elections. At the time, around 20 percent of adults were illiterate, which necessitated paper ballots with party symbols and leaders’ pictures. Some remote polling stations I visited as an independent observer barely had electricity while right-wing spoilers set off random bombs to intimidate voters and disrupt the polls. Yet, the votes were tallied quickly in a free and fair election, and a winner was declared. Democracy doesn’t need high tech to work—it needs engagement.

I worked on a team that helped craft elements of South Africa’s re-entry into the global trading system. I saw what is lost—and how hard it is to rebuild—when a country loses access to free trade.

Most importantly, my year in Cape Town allowed me to see an entire country liberate itself and begin the hard process of stitching together what Mandela called a new “rainbow nation”. Although South Africa today is beset by governance challenges, weak growth, and an economy that leaves too many people on the sidelines, I had the good fortune to watch a miracle unfold in 1994.

Brett House is currently Vice-President & Deputy Chief Economist, Scotiabank.

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