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Will Yukon students be ready for global opportunities?

Yukonomist grew up in a world of blocs: the "West," the "Soviet Bloc,""Red China" and the "Third World." Most people spent their entire lives without travelling to another bloc.

Yukonomist grew up in a world of blocs: the “West,” the “Soviet Bloc,”“Red China” and the “Third World.”

Most people spent their entire lives without travelling to another bloc. Indeed, for most Russians and Chinese it was essentially impossible; the prospect of receiving an exit visa was extremely remote.

But a recent business trip over the past two weeks to Moscow, Beijing and Shanghai has underlined how completely these blocs have shattered.

We live in a world where people, ideas, companies and bad pop music are more mobile than ever before.

I travelled first to Moscow and Beijing in the 1980s and 1990s. There were visas, stern border guards, currency controls, suitcase searches and so on. Once there, you lived in the often baffling world of state-run tourist hotels, appallingly bad customer service and toilet paper shortages.

No longer. I flew into Moscow with less hassle than I receive from Canada Customs returning from Skagway. I flew on Siberian S7 airlines on an Airbus A330 from Moscow to Ekaterinburg in Siberia and actually enjoyed the experience. In Beijing, the hotel staff welcomed me like I was Henry Kissinger.

At the Beijing airport, everyone seemed to have an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy and was wearing Hugo Boss or Adidas. There were ads from every global brand you could imagine, including China Minmetals, the big Chinese mining company that owns properties in the Canadian North. The bestseller rack at the airport bookstore included books by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and a recent biography of Mao Zedong. A vast army of officials, executives and regular folk scurried to and from flights around the world.

Education and English are the new currency in this world. In Moscow, I visited an old classmate from the London School of Economics. He was one of the first post-Soviet scholars to attend LSE. His children both speak English as well as I do. One works at a major European bank doing some kind of rocket science finance neither his father nor I understand, and the other is applying to Cornell (my personal side bet: she’s going to get in).

In Shanghai, I had dinner with a successful lawyer. She studied in the U.S., then returned home to China. Her children are at an English immersion school. She feels a little bit guilty that they are not in weekend math and English cram school like a colleague’s children, but I have no doubt her kids will be able to go to whatever university they can get into, anywhere in the world.

Also in Shanghai, I visited the museum that tells the story of the city’s history. Sort of like the MacBride Museum, but with an 80-storey CN-Tower structure on top with a revolving restaurant. The colonial period in Shanghai is full of pictures of happy-looking Europeans, content in their privileged position in the International Zone where Chinese law no longer applied.

It was a time when, with only a little exaggeration, one can say that all you needed to succeed in Shanghai was a European or American passport.

Russia and China are great global nations, and it is good news to see them taking their places among the leading countries of the world. You can’t help but wonder how the world would have turned out differently if both had managed to avoid the dreadful detour of communism, which cost both countries millions of lives and decades out of the main current of human development.

Looking at Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, one could make the argument that China would have become the world’s largest economy decades ago had it not been for Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution programs.

Both countries still have major challenges, of course. Russia has a frightening demographic challenge with a population that is actually shrinking, and suffers from pollution and corruption. China has been enjoying rapid growth, but this growth has come with severe social strains. Concern continues among some economists about imbalances in the Chinese economy and the risk of an unexpected crisis. Corruption is also a major challenge, which is why the newly installed leadership has made fighting it a major theme.

Despite the challenges, it is hard to conceive a future where China and Russia retreat from the world stage.

What does this mean for the Yukon? Typical maps of Canada give the impression that we are located somewhere near the edge in the upper left corner of the world, often partly underneath the legend. But a glance at a globe with shipping and air routes marked shows us positioned strategically close to the big North Pacific and future Arctic trade routes.

We will see even more Chinese mining and energy companies buying properties and operating in the Yukon, offering access to capital for development and new job opportunities. Yukoners, especially young ones, will have an amazing array of opportunities here, in Vancouver, and around the world. Even my generation of F.H. Collins alumni show early examples of this, from a civil engineer in Qatar to a telecom wiz who updates his Facebook page from India and Libya.

The next generation will go even farther. Or at least some of them will.

Which brings us back to education. How many young Yukoners will be ready to surf this wave, and how many will be swamped by it?

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.