In a spur of idealism and pragmatism in the midst of the Great Depression, the National Council of the YMCA established in Geneva Park on Lake Couchiching — the “Lake of Many Winds” and the traditional home of the Chippewa Rama First Nation — a 10-day public education seminar under the auspices of the newly formed Canadian Institute on Economics and Politics (aka Canadian Institute on Economic and International Affairs). The purpose was to understand the issues of the day by creating an accessible gathering place for the free exchange of ideas on common Canadian concerns. R.E.G. Davis, Secretary of the YMCA’s National Council and his team of influential volunteers from business , labour, government, social agencies, the clergy made up the Institute’s first Program Committee. They launched the first Couchiching Conference in August 1932 and it was titled Depression and Capitalism, obviously focused on the central question occupying Canadians of that era. Following the first publication of conference proceedings in 1935, the summer conference gained an audience far beyond its YMCA stakeholders and made up of a cross-section of Canadian society. To this day the Conference continues to draw influential speakers and Canadians from all walks of life to this lakeside setting, in a forum that has no parallel.
In the 1930s the Institute focused on social reform and the economy while in the 1940s and through World War II, discussions focused on planning and reconstruction. In the 1950s, CBC Radio, through its Public Affairs division, began to broadcast the conference proceedings and the Institute became a household name across Canada. Meanwhile, it broadened its exploration of topics from international affairs to cultural, technological, and even scientific subjects of interest. The relationship with the CBC lasted until 1969, well into the television era when competing demands made their way into the broadcast world. “Losing” the 18-year partnership with CBC meant that the Institute became a more self-sufficient volunteer-run operation and began a new funding model that has lasted to this day.
In 1979, the Institute changed its name from the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs to the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs. It offers programs across Canada through its Roundtables and Conversations, wherever members of the Institute congregate, including Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Orillia, Montreal, Halifax, and Toronto — in addition to its signature annual conference on the Lake of Many Winds, Lake Couchiching.
Much has changed since its early years but the Institute remains vitally important and relevant to Canadians as we wrestle with a transforming society and global scene. We will continue to engage Canadians and curate open conversations on issues that matter — civilly, passionately, and thoughtfully.
2016 Summer Conference
The Canada Project
Identity, Citizenship, and Nationhood in a Changing World
August 5-7, 2016
The YMCA Geneva Park Conference Centre, Orillia, ON