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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future

Couchiching's Diamond Jubilee

Adult Education Expert, former Director, CIPA

I am a little reticent about going down memory lane...nevertheless, I think that there were some experiences and some lessons way back in the 50s and 60s which it is worth drawing upon because of lessons that I think still pertain for the institute.

Let me go back to 1951, when I came from adult education in Britain into the great vitality and variety of Canadian adult education of the 1950's.

I went straight to the University Extension Department of the University of Alberta and, in no time at all, was up in the Peace River country giving short courses and delivering seminars in three little chalets in the Rockies, which called themselves the Banff School of Fine Arts.

And all across the country there was adult education fermat, continuing education process.

In the adjacent province of Saskatchewan the government was experimenting in the kind of leads that government could give in adult education and the arts.

On the far coast the Antigonish Movement of Nova Scotia was in full flourish.

In Quebec, MacDonald College of McGill and Laval were experimenting in bilingual, bicultural seminars on group dynamics way before any thing of that kind was happening on the political stage.

Across the country scores of groups of farmers and their wives were meeting every Monday night to discuss a radio presentation called Farm Radio Forum and they reported their findings.

At the same time current affairs issues were being discussed in another forum, Citizen's Forum. In the middle of all this there was, already 20 years old, the Couchiching Conference meeting in Copeland Hall, in an atmosphere and cultural context that was very much YMCA. The setting itself was primitive, casual and yet formal.

I find a quotation from The Orillia Packet and Times, 1933, talking about the first Couchiching Conference, which said: "There was about the gathering more of the air of a set deliverance by a person of distinction than of a round table discussion or forum."

By 1951 there was very much round table discussion and I don't think a keynote address was ever called a deliverance from then on, although there were some key note addresses from which we wanted to be delivered.

The change came in 1952 with the coming of CBC radio. With the evening occasions going on to the network live, precisely at 8, there was a degree of precision brought to the organization of the Conferences that had not been there before.

The occasions became more crisp. The resources became very much more substantial, the leadership was widely spread, facilities were considerable and we began to learn to hide our scotch.

The coming of CBC Radio meant that the CIPA was necessarily setting a theme that was a national agenda. And through the 50's and the 60s, the themes were indeed national.

We moved out of the YMCA culture, so to speak, and began to create a CIPA culture of its own, where behaviour was more relaxed, more contributory; where the evening discussions became what I used to call high ball to high ball confrontations.

The CBC continued to provide facilities, resources, leadership, through this whole radio period and then into the short television period afterwards, at which point talking heads fell out of favour and, as Eric has fully documented, more exciting programs like This Hour Has Seven Days came into play.

But, we were through all of that period, essentially, setting an agenda of citizenship involvement.

I see now a different kind of age, a different kind of decade; a decade of withdrawal when people are using the jet, the fax and the modem and fibre optics to become more private in their affairs, more special interest group-oriented in their activities and less willing to engage in the more gregarious activities of the collectively, of the commonality.

This is a loss. It is a diminution of the proper role of citizenship.

What Couchiching was doing then was essentially ensuring that the level of citizenship — the sense of self enlightenment — could be carried on by all kinds of people, from all groups of society, interacting one with another, not special interest group against special interest group.

This search for a sort of social idealism went on in these surroundings that were relaxed, enjoyable, quite often unruly, sometimes unstable, always gregarious, but within which the individual participant had a sense, not of affecting policy, although we sometimes said we could, but that was not what was happening.

We were affecting the level of conscious citizenship within which we ourselves were becoming engaged. That I think was the essential role of Couchiching then, I continue to believe it is the essential role now.

I think it is incumbent upon all of us to maintain the struggle to keep it alive and solvent by pursing that particularly important ideal.