Who we are
The Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) is one of the most trusted and influential think tanks in Canada. In addition to our various research programs, we are the home of Policy Options magazine and the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation.
Based in Montreal, the IRPP is one of the only Canadian organizations of its kind to operate in both official languages.
Through in-depth research reports, shorter articles and essays, public events and one-on-one briefings, we connect decision-makers with the research they need to make sound policy decisions, and we amplify the work of a diverse array of thinkers.
Our mission is to “improve public policy in Canada by generating research, providing insight and influencing debate on current and emerging policy issues facing Canadians and their governments.”
Our purpose is to “bring together the worlds of research and public policy to improve the lives of Canadians.”
50 years of trusted research into Canada’s toughest challenges
The Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) is part of a small – but mighty – community of independent institutions supporting evidence-based policy-making and inclusive dialogue, at a time when facts are increasingly contested and society more polarized. On April 11, 2022, the IRPP celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“The overlapping social, economic, technological and environmental issues that Canada is dealing with today are more complex, and changing more rapidly, than anyone could have imagined back in 1972 when we were founded,” says Jennifer Ditchburn, President & CEO of the IRPP.
“But this complexity and this intense pace of change is precisely why the world needs institutions like the IRPP. We make it our job to spot the disruptions that require policy responses, we set aside the chatter and take a sober look at the evidence that will lead to sound decision-making.”
The IRPP is marking its 50th anniversary year with a series of panel discussions on emerging policy issues, held in collaboration with nine schools of public policy and administration across Canada. The Institute is also planning a major gala celebration in Ottawa on November 23, 2022, where it will bring together its diverse community of policy-makers, parliamentarians, researchers, and partners from the private and nonprofit sectors.
The IRPP was officially formed in April 1972, after the federal government pledged in a Speech from the Throne to help create “an institute where long-term research and thinking can be carried out into governmental matters of all kinds.” Since then, the Institute has been at the forefront of key policy conversations – including climate change, the Constitution, immigration and diversity, economic growth, and income inequality – both as a convener and as a publisher of in-depth research.
In addition to its in-depth public policy research component, the Institute is home to the award-winning Policy Options magazine and the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation. Currently, the IRPP’s in-depth research is focused on the social safety net for working-age adults, adult skills and learning, and the aging population.
“What makes the IRPP’s work so impactful is its independence and its high quality. When a decision-maker reads an IRPP study, magazine article, or uses data on provincial COVID policies, they can be confident it is anchored in rigorous research and evidence,” says IRPP Board chair Anne McLellan.
In 1968 the Speech from the Throne included the direction that “it would be useful to have available to all governments an institute where long-term research and thinking can be carried out into governmental matters of all kinds.” Pierre Trudeau’s government noted that, at the time, it was grappling with “difficult and pressing problems relating to youth, poverty, regional disparities, urban growth, individual welfare, and the application and encouragement of scientific technology.”
Canadian businessman and economist Ronald Ritchie was tasked with studying the idea, and in 1969 he produced a report that laid the parameters for a think tank that would operate independently from the government.
“Our present institutions of government were created for an age and society that could afford a more leisurely process of decision making. That time is now gone,” Ritchie wrote.
The Institute for Research on Public Policy was thus officially born in 1972, with an initial endowment from the federal government and donations from some provinces and the private sector. The founding board included broadcaster Jeanne Sauvé (later to become governor general), and former premier of Ontario, John Robarts.
IRPP board chairman Robert Stanfield, former premier of Nova Scotia and Progressive Conservative leader, said in 1983, “No one can dispute these are difficult times, requiring uncommon wisdom from leaders. They must wrestle with problems of unprecedented scope and complexity. But solutions are possible.” He continued, “What will be needed … to help decision makers cope as they search for answers is information: appropriate information, delivered at the right time, to the proper individuals.”
Over the years, the Institute has been at the vanguard of important national policy conversations. It convened high-level conferences around the environment years before the first United Nations earth summit took place. Our researchers dug into the impact of technology on society and the workforce when personal computers were new on the scene. The policy implications of ethnic and cultural diversity have been an area of interest for us stretching back to the 1970s. And our long history of studying the workings of the federation made the IRPP a natural forum for constructive debate during the various national unity crises of the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1980, we launched our flagship bilingual magazine, Policy Options, which the Board decided would be a “primary vehicle for stimulating public policy debate.” Its founding editor was legendary journalist and policy thinker Tom Kent. Kent wrote in the first editorial of Policy Options that there was “an unmet need, felt by many Canadians, for a national magazine that takes the whole range of contemporary policy concerns for its scope.”
He said this magazine should “encourage new directions and identify issues of long-term importance.” Today, Policy Options has more than 2 million page views per year and publishes almost every weekday.
The Institute’s work in the area of intergovernmental affairs led to the creation of the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation in 2020. The Centre was founded with the help of a $10 million grant from the federal government.
Here are some other key moments and achievements over the course of the IRPP’s history:
In the Speech from the Throne opening the 28th Parliament, Governor General Roland Michener states on behalf of the government that, “it would be useful to have available to all governments an institute where long-term research and thinking can be carried out into governmental matters of all kinds.” This would set in motion the creation of an institute for research on public policy — the first Canadian think tank of its kind.
At the request of the federal government, economist and Imperial Oil Ltd. executive Ronald Ritchie begins work on a report on the possibility of a new “institute for research on public policy.” That phrase would eventually become both the title of his 1971 report and the name of the institute it recommended.
The IRPP continues to grow and counts over 20 staff members at its first headquarters in Montreal, where a robust documentation centre is supported by various local academic institutions.
Alfred William Rooke “Fred” Carrothers is named the IRPP’s founding president. Prior to joining the IRPP, he held positions including president of the University of Calgary, and professor dean of law at the University of Western Ontario.
The Institute names its second president, Michael Kirby – former professor of business administration and assistant principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Kirby would soon begin a two-year campaign to raise $30 million for an endowment fund that would ensure the Institute’s financial independence.
The Institute’s research departments carry out work on a broad range of issues including ethnic and cultural diversity, regulation and government intervention, international economics, regional employment opportunities, natural resources, language work in Quebec, Indigenous issues, airline regulation, occupational health and safety, information technology, energy policy, and fisheries policy.
Gordon Robertson is named the IRPP’s third president. Prior to joining the IRPP, Robertson had spent most of his career as adviser to four Prime Ministers of Canada: Mackenzie King, Louis St-Laurent, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. At various times he was Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, and Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet.
Policy Options magazine is established, with journalist, economist and Canadian thinker Tom Kent as its founding editor.
Prior to the World Economic Summit, at the request of the federal government, the IRPP hosts a Pre-Summit Conference of economic and financial ministers from the seven Summit countries. It takes place at the Chateau Montebello, Quebec, which would go on to be the site of many IRPP events and discussions over the years.
In the lead up to the repatriation of the Charter, the IRPP chronicles the critical stages in negotiations and provides objective analysis of the legal meaning and effects of each amendment.
A. Rodney Dobell is named the fourth president of the IRPP. A former professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, he served as Special Advisor (Long Range Economic Planning) to the Deputy Minister of Finance and as Deputy Secretary to the Treasury Board, Director of the General Economics Branch at the OECD, and Director of Research for two Parliamentary Task Forces.
The Institute consolidates its research activities within three major themes: international issues, governability, and social policy. Additionally, environmental policy first appears on the IRPP’s research radar, as research director David Rumnalls establishes the Environment and Sustainable Development program.
The IRPP celebrates its 15th anniversary with a visit from then-Governor General of Canada, Jeanne Sauvé.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs the North American Free Trade Agreement, leading to significant years of research for the IRPP’s International Economics Program.
The Institute heads to Toronto to host a conference on the Earth’s atmosphere, focusing global attention on the environment. The catalytic event was attended by Canada’s Prime Minister and its Minister of the Environment, as well as Norway’s Prime Minister Gro Brundtland. Following the conference, IRPP President Rod Dobell would go on to play an important role in drafting a proposal for a World Atmosphere Fund.
The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada asks the IRPP for help hosting a series of policy seminars on topics relative to the “MacDonald Commission”.
Expanding on its work on the environment, the IRPP undertakes a major study of the Great Lakes, in collaboration with the Conservation Foundation of Washington.
The IRPP holds a conference on Indigenous self-determination, the proceedings of which it would publish the following year in the book, Aboriginal Self-Determination, edited by Frank Cassidy. The institute’s work on Crown-Indigenous relations and governance would continue to be hallmark of its research programs and would go on to include publications such as Reaching Just Settlements, The Spirit of the Alberta Indian Treaties, Aboriginal Title in BC, and Indigenous Peoples, Canada and the Possibility of Reconciliation. This work continues today as one of the research pillars of the IRPP’s Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation
Monique Jérôme-Forget is named the first woman and first francophone President and CEO of the IRPP. She would serve in the role until entering politics and ultimately being elected to Quebec’s National Assembly in 1998. Before joining the IRPP, she was Assistant Deputy Minister of Health and Welfare in Ottawa, President of Quebec’s commission for Worker Health and Safety, vice-rector of finance, institutional research, and human resources at Concordia University and chairperson of the OECD’s committee on social policy.
The IRPP’s Environment and Sustainable Development research program plays a key role in preparations for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Ultimately, the Summit would bring together 105 heads of state, 8,000 journalists and 2,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations.
Following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the IRPP holds a cross-country series of “Constitutional Conferences.”
With discussions around Quebec sovereignty escalating, the IRPP begins to hold public debates between sovereigntists and federalists. These debates would continue through to the 1995 referendum and would be broadcast by RDI, French-language TV stations and The Parliamentary Channel.
IRPP Research Director Leslie Seidle launches a study and national conference on the theme, “Federation or Confederation? Searching for a new partnership.” These types of discussions would help lay the groundwork for the IRPP’s Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation.
France St-Hilaire is named VP Research of the IRPP, having served six years as one of the Institute’s research directors. She would go on to help further shape and define the Institute’s research programs, and her work on income inequality would become some of the IRPP’s most widely read and referenced. Following the resignation of Monique Jérome-Forget, France would also step into the role of Interim President of the IRPP from November 1998 to May 1999.
Hugh Segal is named the IRPP’s 5th president. The political strategist, author, commentator, academic would remain in the role until his appointment to the Senate in 2005.
With a print run of 8,000 copies — more than any other IRPP book before or since — As I Recall / Si je me souviens bien was given free of charge to all secondary schools in Canada. The book chronicles 34 events that marked political relations between Canada’s English and French linguistic communities, from the arrival of the British in 1759 to the 1995 Quebec referendum. The book was published in both English and French.
Suzanne Ostiguy-McIntyre is named the IRPP’s first Vice-President, Operations, ushering in a new era of efficiency and organization.
The IRPP begins the new millennium with preparatory work on what would become a new conference and eventual book series, The Art of the State.
In a decision that would prove prophetic, the IRPP’s research committee approves a new research area dealing with National Security and Military Interoperability. It would turn out to be an especially timely initiative in the fallout after 9/11. Publications from the research area would include Canadian Foreign Policy and Intervention Abroad, Will the Canadian Forces Have What they Need When They Need It?, and Canada and the United States Northern Command: Implications for Canada.
Thomas Courchene’s study, Confiscatory Equalization: The Intriguing Case of Saskatchewan’s Vanishing Energy Revenues, creates shock waves across the country, leading to Saskatchewan’s Department of Finance confirming that the federal government would pay $120M to Saskatchewan because of high tax-back rates on Crown lease revenues, consider remedial future action, and conduct a comprehensive review of the equalization of resources.
The IRPP once again proves itself to be eerily prescient with the release of the new study, Planning for the Next Pandemic Threat: Defining the Federal Role in Public Health Emergencies.
Mel Cappe is named the IRPP’s sixth president. Prior to becoming president, Mel was Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He also served as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Federal Cabinet.
A significant year for IRPP research, with the publication of A Canadian Priorities Agenda (the culmination of a two-year project designed to initiate a broad-based and informed public debate on the economic and social policy choices and priorities for Canada over the medium term) and the establishment of the Faces of Aging program, which would go on to become one of the institute’s longest-running outlets for new research.
As debate over reforming the Canadian Senate rages, the IRPP publishes related study, Restructuring the Canadian Senate through Elections, which would quickly become one of the Institute’s most read publications.
The IRPP publishes a new book in the Art of the State series: Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North. The groundbreaking volume on Canada’s North would inspire the IRPP to hold private briefings with the Premier of Nunavut and senior territorial officials in Iqaluit, engaging directly with the community at a public event.
The Faces of Aging research program kicks into high gear with a flurry of activity, including the conference, When I’m 64… Defining Caregiving Policy for an Aging Canada, as well as the publication of papers such as Residential Long-Term Care for Canada’s Seniors, Many Degrees of Policy Freedom: The Federal Government’s Role in Care for Seniors, and Supporting Caregivers and Caregiving in an Aging Canada.
Graham Fox is named the seventh president of the IRPP, having previously held the position of Communications Director for the institution. Prior to joining the IRPP, Graham was a strategic policy advisor at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP and chief of staff to Joe Clark.
To mark its 40th anniversary, the IRPP commissions an exclusive poll to name the Best Premier of the Last 40 Years, voted on by a jury of 30 prominent Canadians. Alberta’s Peter Lougheed wins in a landslide, with every juror picking him in their top 5, and 21 out of 30 choosing him as the best.
After 35 years in print, the IRPP publishes the last hard-copy edition of Policy Options. As of September, the magazine would become digital-only.
In collaboration with the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network, the IRPP publishes Income Inequality: The Canadian Story – the fifth volume in its The Art of the State book series and a landmark publication in the institute’s ongoing work on income inequality, spearheaded by France St-Hilaire, the IRPP’s Vice-President, Research.
Ever a convenor of significant educational conversations, the IRPP hosts “Understanding the Indian Act,” a sold-out event in Ottawa on fundamental questions about the Act.
The IRPP publishes the sixth volume in the Art of the State series: Redesigning Canadian Trade Policies for New Global Realities. Edited by Stephen Tapp, Ari Van Assche and Robert Wolfe, the publication would go on to win the Doug Purvis Memorial Prize in 2018.
The federal budget allocates a $10M grant to the IRPP to establish the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation, which would ultimately see its official launch in September 2020.
Policy Options hosts a series of in-depth conversations on key issues ahead of that year’s federal elections. Held in partnership with McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, the talks touch on subjects ranging from how to improve Canada’s tax system to Indigenous-Crown relations.
With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, the IRPP refocuses its efforts on the COVID-19 pandemic, publishing related op-eds in Policy Options and commissioning new research on long-term care and worker displacement to begin to chart the post-pandemic policy course.
The IRPP’s Board of Directors announces the appointment of Jennifer Ditchburn as the IRPP’s eighth President, effective June 1, 2021. Prior to leading the IRPP, Jennifer Ditchburn was editor-in-chief of Policy Options and spent two decades covering national and parliamentary affairs for The Canadian Press and CBC Television.
With support from Accenture, the IRPP hires its first-ever full-time reporter for Policy Options: Kathryn May joins the team to cover the future of the public service.