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'Looking straight into the future': Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas visits U of T

U of T President Meric Gertler meets Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (left) outside of Simcoe Hall on Friday afternoon. The two held a short meeting before Ratas's address at the Munk School of Global Affairs (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Whether transforming the lives of its citizens through technological innovation or strengthening crucial global alliances, Estonia is a leader in Europe and increasingly views international partners like Canada – and the University of Toronto – as key players in its future.  

Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas highlighted the importance of international co-operation during a public address at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs on Friday. In his remarks, the prime minister illustrated Estonia’s long record of achievement in digitalization of governance and called for continued collaboration with other countries in areas ranging from national security, to artificial intelligence, to the protection of personal data.  

Professor Randall Hansen, interim director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, welcomed the prime minister by highlighting several of Estonia’s strengths. “Having emerged since 1989 as a thriving democracy and full member of the European Union, Estonia has developed a robust civil society, has become a leader in cybersecurity and digital governance, and can be justly proud of being the Baltic leader in recognizing the rights of LGBTQ people,” said Hansen.

U of T Chancellor Michael Wilson (left) and President Meric Gertler watch as Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas signs the U of T Distinguished Visitors' Book. The guest book noted that the visit was taking place “during the centenary anniversary of the Republic of Estonia” (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

As Ratas and his delegation leave Simcoe Hall, they have a surprise run-in with John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China and former federal cabinet minister. McCallum was on his way to another meeting at Simcoe Hall (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Ratas meets a fan on his walk to the Munk School of Global Affairs. Inside, the audience included an especially enthusiastic turnout from Toronto's Estonian diaspora community (photo by Lisa Sakulensky) 

Addressing the audience at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs: NATO, Ratas said, remains the “cornerstone of collective defence” (photo by Lisa Sakulensky) 

Digitalization of everyday life is Estonia’s signature interest: Estonians make 99.8 per cent of their banking transfers online, and 96 per cent of the country’s citizens submit their income-tax declarations electronically (within an average of three minutes). Other common tasks – from communicating with physicians to checking children’s grades – can all be accomplished on secure digital platforms.  

An important element in Estonia’s digital success story, Ratas emphasized, has been the nation’s willingness to trust the government with their data. For example, after the government discovered  and remedied a vulnerability in the country’s national ID cards in 2017, Estonians continued using the cards without hesitation. Ratas explained that, just one month after the vulnerability was discovered, almost a third of Estonians cast their ballots online in the local elections, demonstrating “the continuing trust of people.”

Estonia’s digital economy contributes to what the prime minister referred to as a “hassle-free society” in which interactions between citizens and government are streamlined to the greatest extent possible. 

Protecting the societies in which such open innovation takes place, however, remains a key concern, particularly in view of geopolitical challenges posed, for example, by growing Russian aggression.  

On this point, Ratas emphasized that strong transatlantic relations offer the “greatest guarantee of security” for countries like Estonia. He expressed his gratitude to Canada for its active participation in NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in eastern Europe by leading a battlegroup based in Estonia's southern neighbour, Latvia. NATO, for all its members, remains the “cornerstone of collective defence.” 

Looking forward, Ratas touched on the common interest of Estonia and Canada in staying at the forefront of developments in fields such as artificial intelligence. He commended U of T for its leading role in research and innovation in this field, and praised in particular U of T University Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton’s work in the area of deep learning.  

The opportunities generated by such technology, however, must be balanced against possible adverse outcomes, including compromises to privacy and personal data. It should remain a priority of innovators, Ratas said, to remember that technology must exist in service of citizens and commerce, not in place of them.  

“In all of these areas,” he said, “Estonia, Canada and U of T stand side by side, looking straight into the future.” 

Ratas greets Randall Hansen, interim director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, ahead of Friday's address by the Estonian prime minister (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)