It’s 1997, responding to the emergence of global human genome investments, the Medical Research Council President, Henry Friesen, launches a Genomics Task Force (GTF). It is chaired by a dynamic geneticist, Lap-Chee Tsui, at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
The 1998 report from GTF outlines a mission for Canada’s role in this emerging and disruptive technology. The case for it is straightforward. Canada, with no formal genome program, needs to get in the global game or be left behind. Further, it is a significant generational opportunity to build on the country’s health research assets and train a new cadre of researchers. In addition, genomics has huge potential for improving quality of life, enhancing wealth creation and sustainable development.
After several efforts to convince decision-makers, a persuasive argument is made to establish something truly pan-Canadian— and different in both its structure and flexibility to operate. It would not be housed within a government bureaucracy, nor would it be built into the mandate of the existing granting councils. Most critically, it would exploit the large Canadian geography with diverse, niche economic areas of strength in knowledge and innovation, along with regional centres across the country.
It is also understood that given the scale and interdisciplinarity of genomics that a new approach is needed to link partners, researchers, policy-makers and informed citizens. Finally, it is deemed imperative that a regulatory and social, ethical regime be incorporated along with funding support for the genomics work underway in the federal science departments.
With an initial fund of $160M, Genome Canada is announced in 2000 including support for the establishment of genome centres in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, the Prairies and Atlantic Canada (with Alberta later) focused on health, forestry, agriculture, aquaculture and the environment.
20 years later, as it moves forward with its five-year strategic plan, and tackling the critical genomics issues behind the pandemic, Genome Canada with its centres and key partnerships continues to be a prime player in the country’s overall research ecosystem.
By Paul Dufour