Welcome to the 62nd edition of an annual tradition that has become, like loons, black flies and Muskoka chairs, an essential part of the Canadian summer.
We are the oldest public affairs forum in Canada; a non-profit organization that takes no public stance on any issue. We are dedicated instead to increasing the awareness and understanding of the issues of the day, whether they are Canadian or international, or increasingly, both.
This year, Couchiching will address: "The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change."
The phrase lifelong learning is so new to the English lexicon that it has barely had time to find its way into the most recent dictionaries. That, of course, is a function of how quickly the need for it has grown, which in turn, I believe, is an indication of how quickly the world is changing.
Today, lifelong learning is the call to arms of political leaders throughout the Western world. It is the subject of countless think-pieces on the Op-Ed pages of leading newspapers. It is what CEOs challenge their employees to embrace for the survival of everyone involved, including their common corporation.
Here in Canada, there's a certain defensiveness in our use of the phrase lifelong learning. Perhaps it's because we feel as a nation that we stopped learning when we finished school and are now coasting on our increasingly rusty laurels. Canadian educators are finding, to their growing shock, that we may still be one of the most educated nations on earth, but that we've been educating ourselves for yesterday's needs instead of tomorrow's.
Canadians are not only one of the most educated peoples on earth; we are also one of the most quickly adaptable. If anyone has a real chance at transforming their society from that of lifelong working to that of lifelong learning, surely it is Canada, which spends the third highest amount per capita on education.
Canadians have little to be insecure about when it comes to lifelong learning except, of course, for our chronic insecurity about our own identity. We have learned this quality of self-deprecation so well that it has often become second nature to use it to tear down our best and brightest as they endeavour to show the world the products of their own lifelong learning.
Yet, from the days before Canada was Canada, when Sir William Osler told us that "our work should be our happiness," to today, when Frank McKenna says: "The new world economy will be divided between the `knows' and the `know-nots'," we are a nation that has always embraced learning, if not admitting to that embrace.
The Couchiching Conference has been a telling example of lifelong learning since long before the phrase was coined. When I was growing up in Calgary, my parents and their friends actually planned their day so they could gather around the radio to hear gavel-to-gavel coverage of Couchiching on the CBC.
Those were the days when the Couchiching Conference was the signal event in the Canadian intellectual calendar. I'm not sure we even have an intellectual calendar any more, now that analysis longer than a sound bite tends to be relegated to late-night cable.
Perhaps it is this inevitable consequence of trying to force-fit an exponentially increasing quantity of information with no such increase in quality into a day that is still only 24 hours and into a personal attention span that remains discouragingly inflexible.
But despite it all, Couchiching has been as constantly questioning, intellectually rigorous, and frequently disputatious as the world expects Canada to be in order to ensure its national survival in an age of global change. It has done this by applying the very lessons that the lifelong learners demand from their students today. It has remained vital and progressive by constantly welcoming new people, new ideas, and unconventional wisdom.
Like the people who attend it every year, Couchiching is able to attract a pot pourri of venerable authorities such as John Kenneth Galbraith who addressed us last year together with a fresh and iconoclastic bunch of up-and- comers.
The result of this ability to throw very different minds together in a spirit of inventive openness has been for us, in recent years, the very competitive advantage that our nation seeks from its commitment to education. And speaking of education, we are extremely honoured to have with us tonight Premier Frank McKenna of New Brunswick.
We invited Premier McKenna not simply because he is one of the most popular politicians in Canada but because more than any Canadian leader, he has committed so much of his political capital, and his province's budget, to education, and to lifelong learning. In the six years since he took officer Premier McKenna has launched ambitious programs to reform primary, secondary and post-secondary education. He has also created New Brunswick Works, an innovative program to take welfare recipients off the dole and get them back in school; a program likened by one man to, "...getting a second chance with your life."
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to welcome Premier Frank McKenna.