Are We Failing Our Future? Time for a new deal between generations
Fittingly for the topic of the 84th Couchiching Conference, the attendees spanned almost one hundred years of human experience, from the youngest delegate at 4 and half months old, to the inimitable Eric Koch, a Couch veteran in his 97th year. This wealth of human experience fed the conversation throughout the three days of the Conference.
The whole purpose of coming up to the Couchiching Conference is to think about things we haven’t questioned before and challenge each other to explore novel ideas and bold initiatives. And once again, this year’s conference delivered: the panelists engaged with the tough issues, the delegates asked challenging questions, and everyone participated in the conversation throughout the conference, all in the natural beauty of the lake-side setting. Morning paddles, afternoon sessions under the trees, and evening campfires made for intimate discussions in informal settings on important public policy issues.
Friday, August 7, 2015
The Conference started on Friday just after lunch, with a session led by representatives from Lakehead University on the comparative costs of student debt in Canada, starting from the 1960s when the first government loans were issued to students. Increasing tuition fees across the country now mean that government-issued loans now cover only a portion of the total costs of the post-secondary education. While elementary and secondary school attendance is both mandatory and free, post-secondary is becoming increasingly siloed as the costs rise, limiting access to those with the means to pay. Is a university education a right for all, or a privilege limited to the few who can afford it? Is the purpose of post-secondary education the pursuit of knowledge or the assurance of a lucrative career? And if so, should it be priced accordingly? Asked, but answered, these questions were debated by delegates on both sides of having repaid their student debts.
For the official opening of the Conference, City of Orillia Councillor Pat Hehn declared August 7, 2015 to be Intergeneration Day. Elder Myrna Watson of the Chippeawas of Rama First Nation prayed for a productive conference, asking the delegates to open their minds and hearts to the seven generations to come.
The Conference’s two opening keynote addresses were a complement and challenge to each other. Helen Angus, deputy minister for citizenship and immigration, international trade, women’s issues, and senior’s affairs, challenged the assumptions about seniors in Ontario. Boomers, she said, are living longer, but as productive and contributing members of Canadian society, working and paying taxes well into their 60s. Ontario should certainly adapt to the changing demographics, but part of the adaption is thinking differently about seniors, recognizing their changing needs and their continued active participation in society.
Paul Kershaw, founder of the Generation Squeeze campaign, called for younger generations, those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, to organize and advocate for public dollars to be more proportionately spent on their age cohort. The younger generations, he argued, are pressed by externalities, including high housing prices, high student loans, limited pensions, and figuratively being squeezed between raising children and caring for aging parents. A lobby for younger generations would give them the necessary political clout to advocate for policies benefitting younger generations. As Kershaw said, politics isn’t broken, it still works for those who show up.
Saturday, August 8, 201
Saturday morning was all about cold, hard cash: who gets it, and when? Mitzie Hunter, the Ontario Associate Minister of Finance, stressed the need to adapt our policies on public pensions to the reality that today’s workforce is more mobile than ever. Former head of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, Jim Leech, illustrated the changing dynamics facing pension plans by recalling a renegotiation of an agreement where the union accused management of reneging on its previous benefits deal, to which he replied: “yes, they may have gone back on their promise, but you have reneged on the deal too; you’re not dying as quickly as planned.”
Changing economic and demographic realities affect more than just pensions, however. Mike Moffatt, from Western University, highlighted the fact hat new economic forces not only produce intergenerational challenges, but also create tensions between communities, regions and provinces, all competing to attract good jobs. Mike urged resistance against “racing to the bottom” in tackling those challenges and tensions. Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called on the delegates to question the current assumptions underlying our economic policies and argued that significant policy changes will be required for Canada to face the new, emerging domestic and international economic landscape.
After lunch, long-time friend of Couchiching and current Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, spoke about her experience during her first year in office. From aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario to the Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games in Toronto, the Lieutenant-Governor recounted how she is constantly amazed at the rich diversity of the people of Ontario. Her role, as she sees it, is to hear the stories of Ontarians. Her privilege is that she can call people to together to share them. Fora like the Couchiching Institute are valuable in their ability to bring people together to discuss.
After a real (and at times unfairly rigged) intergenerational tug-of-war, it was time to address environmental transfers. Under the moderating leadership of Sandra Odendahl, Director of Corporate Sustainability and Social Finance, Royal Bank of Canada, the Saturday evening panel was a spirited discussion regarding the environmental aspects of intergenerational transfer. Braulio de Souza Dias, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, brought a global perspective, and impressed upon the delegates that we too often take the natural world for granted and think that we will always benefit from it, but that will not always be so if we fail to protect the natural environment. He spoke about the prospects for the upcoming December conference in Paris that will deal with global warming. Columnist Deborah Yedlin of the Calgary Herald stressed the critical role that energy plays in every aspects of the Canadian and world economy, and argued that it is naïve to think we can easily change that reality. For his part, Professor Christopher Ragan of McGill University advocated for the concept of carbon pricing in a carbon constrained world. Chris suggested that the challenge in tackling environmental dangers lies not in the absence of potential solutions, but in a lack of leadership and governance in making the tough, but necessary decisions. The many questions from the floor from both speakers and delegates clearly showed a very engaged audience.
Sunday, August 9, 2015
Sunday morning the next day, the Conference tackled the issue of institutional and democratic transfer. Jane Hilderman, the Executive Director of Samara Canada, started the discussion by saying that she treated the Conference as a BYOB event: Bring Your Own Boomer – Jane brought her mother along! Jane’s presentation was based on data derived from Samara’s “Democracy 360” survey in 2014. Counter to widely held beliefs, Millennials (those born between 1987 and 1993) were more actively engaged in political life than other age cohorts, even though only 38.8% of them turned out to vote in 2011. This higher level of participation spanned all 18 measures of political engagement examined in the survey, from general political involvement like conversations using online technologies, through activism and other civic engagement, to formal political action like party-political activity. Perhaps, Jane posited, the problem is in the traditional way in which we frame formal political engagement.
Leo Bureau-Blouin, a former student representative and former Member of the National Assembly in Quebec, picked up on that discrepancy. Léo now a law student at Laval, described lessons learnt from his experiences as a student activist in 2012, fighting proposed increases in tuition charges in Québec, by building intense media interest in March, April, and May, then negotiating with the Québec Government on these issues, followed by his election as a member of the National Assembly in September 2012, to his loss in the following election of April 2014. He saw the tuition hike become the number one issue in the media from March to May 2012, attracting more media coverage than even the Montreal Canadiens! The percentage of young people under 25 voting in provincial elections rose from 35% 2008 to 63% in 2012. His experience in Government from 2012 to 2014 revealed the resistance of young people to committing to conventional political parties, and, by contrast, their passion about certain specific political issues.
Finally, Adwoa Buahene of n-gen People Performance Inc., answered the question “are we failing the future?” with a bold “yes, because we have been failing our past”. Adwoa pointed out the communications challenges posed by Generation X (born 1965-80) and Generation Y (born 1981-2000) to the Baby Boom generation (born 1946-64) and their Traditional predecessors. Born in the shadow of the Baby Boom, outnumbered by the Boomers and facing the prospect of never matching their parents’ career opportunities or wealth, Gen-Xers grew up skeptical of government and political organizations, and felt obliged to become self-reliant in reaction to diminished collective heft. Gen-Y, on the other hand, as children of the Boomers, formed a large cohort like their parents, which came to dwarf Gen-X. So Gen-Y grew up with strong optimism about their abilities. Using online expertise to develop pundits within their own generation, they rely on peer-to-peer relationships rather than their elders. Accordingly, political parties need to speak with Gen-Yers not to them.
The Conference closed with thought-provoking remarks from Karen Carter, the Executive Director of Myseum of Toronto, and Sanjay Khanna, the Futurist-in-Residence at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Pulling together different ideas, lessons and thoughts expressed over the course of the conference, Karen used the construction of the Bloor Viaduct as a good example of how society should think and act in a forward-looking way. When the Bloor Viaduct was built, planners ensured that it could accommodate subway tracks before they even knew if a subway would ever be built. This sort of creative, visionary thinking is, for Karen, necessary to ensure the well-being of future generations. Looking ahead, futurist Sanjay Khanna spoke of the many challenges that modern societies will face over the next several decades. Although the future may look grim at times, he argued that is not cause for despair: humans have confronted challenges before and adapted to new realities, and it can be done again.
|Conference OverviewSubject to change|
|FRIDAY AUGUST 7, 2015|
|12:00pm||Registration & box lunch pick-up||Boxed lunch available upon request|
|1:00pm||Millennial Circle||This informal gathering is a great way for our “millennial” conference participants to learn more about the conference and get to know each other better.|
|2:00pm||Breakout Sessions||Student Debt: How did we get to where we are, and where do we go from here? Facilitators: Jackqueline Bean; Joshua Levac|
|3:30pm||Breakout Sessions||The Curatorial Perspective: How the Museum Presents the Past to Our Future. Facilitator: Ninette Gyorody|
|5:00pm||President’s Reception||Join delegates and speakers for our opening President’s Reception in the lounge before heading into dinner.|
|6:30pm||Manticore Book Sales|
|Set the stage and raise the curtain: let the conference begin! Our opening panel will frame the conference, ask more questions than it answers and inspire conversations that will evolve throughout the course of the weekend.|
|SATURDAY AUGUST 8, 2015|
|The Fiscal Transfer|
|Some argue that today’s youth face a tough job market, large student loans and shrinking pensions while older Canadians consume limited government resources at an unsustainable rate. Does this mean financial inequality between generations is the next big divide? We’ll discuss whether taxes, pensions, infrastructure investment and government debt help or hinder the transfer of resources across generations.|
|11:30am||Manticore Book Sales||Join Jim Leech for a book signing of Third Rail|
|12:00pm||Lunch & Annual Members Meeting|
|2:00pm||Concurrent Breakout Sessions||
|3:30pm||Concurrent Breakout Sessions||
|The Environmental Transfer|
|The threat of environmental degradation and resource shortages is today’s most crucial public policy issue. Our current growth and prosperity rely upon the extraction of natural resources, with all its impacts on land, water and air. Have we invested enough in our future to compensate for what we have used in the past and continue to borrow today?|
|SUNDAY, AUGUST 9, 2015|
|8:30am||Manticore Book Sales|
|The Institutional/Democratic Transfer|
|Are younger Canadians less engaged in politics or just differently inspired? The traditional, inherited institutional models of democracy, including the “first past the post” system, the monarchy, the rigid hierarchical power systems, may not resonate with the next generation. And if young Canadians are engaging in new ways, do we need to imagine a new formal political system for tomorrow?|
|We’ll end with thoughtful reflections on the weekend’s deliberations as the curtain falls on another catalytic Couchiching conference.|
Thank you our Sponsors:
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