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History Table of Contents
1992 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1992
Competitiveness and Social Justice: How Can Canada Have Both?

61st Annual Couchiching Conference


The annual Couchiching Conference is an established Canadian habit, held by the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs, which was founded in 1932 by the YMCA National Council as an educational body. From 1952 for many years its proceedings were disseminated by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of its responsibility for adult education. Although news has been made at Couchiching on one or two occasions, newsmaking was never its primary function. From the beginning it was dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. As an executive of the Royal Bank of Canada once remarked, Couchiching "sounds like an ancient Chinese dynasty. It looks like a cross between Plato’s Academy and the ideal summer camp.

August, 1992, turned out to be the coldest on record in Ontario, where summers are normally hot and sultry. But at Couchiching on August 6 the sun shone, the lake sparkled, and conference veterans sat out under the trees, reminiscing about earlier conferences. The fine weather lasted two days, after which it dissolved in rain. But by this time, heated by many arguments, no one seemed to mind very much.

"Cooch" as some recidivists coarsely call it, is well ensconced in Canadian consciousness. It even has a place in comic fiction. In Stephen Vizinczey’s charming novel In Praise of Older Women (1964) the Hungarian narrator, attending Couchiching, is at cross purposes with a young matron who wants her no to mean you made me do it. Praising the outdoor attractions, the narrator remarks, "Of course those who have nothing better to do, assemble in the conference hall." The majority, he suggests, are on the prowl for extra-marital adventure.

That was the early 1960’s. By 1992 the age had lost the insouciance of that dawn of sexual liberation. With the 1990’s the young were entering an era in which sex could be lethal and to flirt was to risk charges of harassment. Within 30 years the wheel of history had turned, and the old killjoy Puritanism was coming back, this time with medical and ideological sanction. These days Couchiching is platonic.

One may still relax in the demure pleasures of Couchiching – sun, leafy solitudes and lapping water. The food is good, the accommodations civilized. A few drinks in good company still go down well.

On Thursday, August 6, in the evening, John Kenneth Galbraith, still vigorous in his eighties, lofty in manner as in stature, gave the keynote address. He did not directly tackle the theme of competitiveness versus social justice, though he implied that Canada must have both. He called for intelligent pragmatism, thought over theory, or over "theology" as he called the doctrinaire positions which were about to go down to defeat in the U.S. And with the exception of the debate the following night between leftist Gerald Caplan and right-wing Donald Coxe, a clash of rigid theologies, most of the discussion did favour thought.

Friday, August 7, opened after breakfast with a panel on "The Canadian Crisis", consisting of two businessmen, Marcel Côté and Peter Nicholson, with union leader Fred Pomeroy, and moderator Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. In the afternoon demographer David Foot put on a fascinating demonstration of how population statistics can explain absolutely everything. After dinner came the Caplan verses Coxe slugfest.

On Saturday, August 8, two theorists and a practitioner looked over the competition. The theorists were David Crane, a journalist and author covering economics, and Knut Hammarskjöld, CEO of the Atwater Institute. The practical one was Georgina Wyman of Bata shoes.

In the afternoon, discussion groups took up special themes, and after dinner two men involved in health and community services talked about delivering compassion efficiently. Dr. Martin Barkin, a health-care leader, and Don Richmond, Metro Toronto’s commissioner of community services were passionate about what they were doing but were vague about why. The third panellist, a provincial deputy minister, expressed dismay at our high school dropout rate, alluding to a couple of American experiments that were promising.

On the last morning, Sunday the 9th, the twin themes of competitiveness and compassion were brought together by Margot Franssen of The Body Shop and Julie White of Levi Strauss & Co., moderated by Bobbi Speck of the Annex Village Campus. The presentations were in the fine old Quaker tradition of getting rich by simply doing good.

The final afternoon was meant to lift the discussion to a national and ideal level, and valiant efforts were made in that direction, but since two of the participants were a conservative CEO and a Union man, they could not help slipping into the ritual softshoe number of labour and management. Stanley Hartt is an executive star, former labour arbitrator and job-hopping CEO, now heading Camdev Corporation, and Leo Gerard is Canada’s national director, United Steelworkers. The third party, Chaviva Hosek, who directs the national Liberal caucus, sought to distance her position from the conservative one. Barbara Eastman, immediate past president of CIPA, moderated.

In the end, it was not what was said so much as what was implicitly assumed that made the conference interesting. In the presence of so many politically committed participants, special pleading was to be expected, even when it assumed the voice of wisdom itself. Yet even the rhetoric of every one of these partisans seemed to appeal to certain unconscious assumptions, which could be inferred from the discussion in much the same way as the rules of grammar are inferred from common usage.

It was noticeable that speakers tended to describe social justice as forms of "compassion", or "caring", sentimental and self-congratulatory terms that left the concept vulnerable to charges of "bleedingheart" advocacy. But although the idea was never clearly expressed, there was no question about the underlying and informing assumptions influencing all the speakers. These were shared concepts about the nature of our polity and community.

The ends of our Canadian polity, the reasons for which it exists, which make it legitimate and are implicit in all political discourse, are liberty and justice. These ends are unchanging and have nothing to do with our being kind and good and nice. As Mae West said, "Goodness has nothing to do with it!"

If we seek a way to distinguish our form of democracy from that of the U.S., this, rather than the symbols of crown or parliament, is surely where the difference lies. The great republic, putting second things first, exalts the pursuit of happiness. But happiness is a by-product, the reward of the pursuit of liberty and justice, which are the true ends of our common life.