This is the 66th summer conference of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs annual mecca for thoughtful Canadians since 1932.
Welcome, as our youth committee would call it, to "summer camp for the mind."
This summer our topic raises for examination "Canada and the Asia Pacific Promise." We want to recognize the hope, discern what is the hype, and understand the reality.
I was mindful of this evening, and of our conference, just a few weeks ago when I was in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Some hope, some hype, some reality.
During my meetings in Cambodia, the prospect of Pol Pot being brought in from his jungle lair and put on trial for his crimes against humanity was a major topic. So was the then recent fighting between the two sets of prime ministerial bodyguards, the aftermath of the grenade explosion killing many union protesters who had been demonstrating near the parliament buildings for the right to organize textile workers, and the parliamentary and political stalemate which had beset the country.
Impressions were numerous:
...from my visit to the Tuol Sleng prison, which had been the torture and extermination centre in Phnom Penh for the Khmer Rouge regime, through the back streets populated by row upon row of shacks for Vietnamese and Cambodian prostitutes;
...seeing very young children fending for themselves in the streets even late at night...constantly encountering beggars in the streets, giving to the young ones without legs who are hobbling monuments to the human roulette of living in a country infested with land mines;
...thrilling with joy to watch the elegance and dedication of young girls in the morning rehearsing their dancing at the Academy of Fine Arts as they train to become Upsula dancers in the classic tradition of their ancient Cambodian culture...
...watching the late afternoon exodus of several hundred orange-robed Buddhists out of their training centre and through the streets, swirling amidst the chaotic traffic flow which proves that rules and stop signs need not be part of an operating transportation 'system;'
...passing the improvised roadside stands of children selling fruits or gasoline in refilled pop bottles from passing moped riders...discovering there is no 'unemployment' because there are no social programs, so the reality is even children find ways to earn money in order to eat;
...stepping but a few short yards away into luxury hotels...enjoying the earthy fresh smells and sky-filled drama at the rainy season's first torrential arrival...looking out from the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents' Club across the Mei Cong River bathed in the thin light of a hot summer's day;
...thinking how Somerset Maugham had described such scenes and inflamed the imaginations of young men half-way around the world with the romance and ironies of Southeast Asia...sensing the beauty of this country during a tranquil hour along the shore of the Bassac River, studying summer clouds piling softly upward into a sharp blue sky and small river boats chugging downstream past the tall reeds of the riverbank;
...feeling the presence of tragedy lurking behind the ominous reserve of so many people with whom I spoke...learning, through seeing and listening, what I had only known about from a distance, about people scarred deeply living in the aftermath of one calumny compounded by another, of one tragedy swallowed in succession by the next;
...sensing the uncertainty about who could be trusted...and glimpsing the sense of perplexity, of vulnerability, of intrusion about what all the foreign representatives of so many different agencies and organizations intended with their own diverse agendas for this small land living under its seemingly huge curse.
Several days after leaving Phnom Penh, news reports followed about the next coup which was then taking place. Even during my week of meetings and experiences in Cambodia, and my discussions with many quite different people about democracy and reconciliation, I was struck by the ever- present shadow that fell across the scene, that gave a different tone to the words they spoke; a shadow we Canadians neither see, nor have direct experience contending with.
It is the sinister shade cast upon even the most ardent and shining of democrats. It is the ominous shadow of a coup culture. It is the ever-present darkness of lurking anarchy, and its twin, repressive authority.
Each of the many, many countries of the vast Asia Pacific community carries its own history, tells its own story, seeks to make its own way in relation whether warlike or in peaceful alliance with the others. This is what we shall learn more about at this Couchiching Conference.
This is where we as Canadians of many different backgrounds join. From First Nations people who may have a special link with aboriginal peoples in Asia, such as the Forest People in the jungles of northern Thailand to recent immigrants from the Pacific Rim, we share the common magic of Canadian citizenship. We can actively live in two homelands simultaneously.
This is where we each come to understand better the framework of this year's topic, who we are, and what we are, and what more exactly Canada is as a Pacific and increasingly Asian country.
For instance, among our Canadian peoples of 30 million are one million of Chinese origin. Of that number 330,000, or one- third, were born overseas and emigrated here, and two-thirds have been living here for generations. These numbers are big, but the experiences are individual.
Each one of us has these experiences and most of them are some combination of hope, of hype, and of reality. I know personally, as godfather to a treasured baby Chinese girl adopted from one of the orphanages of China where unwanted baby girls routinely perish under the One Child Family policy in a culture which places women decidedly in second rank how varied those experiences can be. I felt it. It's what happens when two cultures connected through the powers of the heart and one tiny human life.
This, moreover, is but a single dimension of human experience. Across the entire spectrum of human races, with the rainbow of languages and religions and cultural outlooks and cuisine and mannerisms, many Canadians of diverse Asian backgrounds enrich the Canadian mosaic. Each story, even in a pattern, is somehow unique. Ours is not a monoculture, but a pluralistic society.
So it is time to take stock. It is time to discover how Canadian society is evolving, and to glimpse both the promise and the reality of Canada's future. Such is a further purpose of this Couchiching Conference.
For if the excitement and energy contributed to Canada by Asian Canadians is one dimension of our conference, a second aspect is the outward reach of Canada and our people into the Asia Pacific region of which we are a remote but relevant part.
Our Prime Minister, Mr. Chretien, has led Team Canada trade missions into the Asia Pacific region, truly one of the constructive recent initiatives of the Government of Canada. Over the course of this conference we shall perhaps learn how much Canadian activity in the Asia Pacific community is hype, and how much is substantive and enduring.
Six weeks ago, when I was in Thailand conducting two senior-level workshops for the Praikpow Institute of Bangkok and the Parliamentary Centre of Ottawa, one centred around holding a constitutional referendum, and experience with direct democracy which our country had five years ago, and which the Thais anticipated holding in the process of adopting their new and highly democratic constitution.
The second workshop dealt with creation of an independent election commission, to replace elections being conducted by the Ministry of the Interior.
Establishing such an institution of democracy as an independent election commission makes a world of difference in outcome. This important project in Thailand is one of many where Canadians are working with people in other countries to strengthen democracy.
Yet to my great surprise, when participating this July in an official Canadian foreign policy round table at King's College in Halifax, I discovered that these and other initiatives may now be viewed, at least by official Ottawa, in a new light. At the Halifax gathering, which was focused on Asian Pacific dimensions of our country's foreign policy, I was astounded to hear so many references, and to read in so many foreign policy documents now issuing from the Government of Canada, about our programs "to extend Canadian values abroad."
That sounded somehow more American, or more imperial- tinged, than my Canadian sensibilities allowed. What Canadian values, precisely, are we seeking to extend to other countries? I wondered.
Some of us could make our own list of fundamental Canadian values. Mine for example would start with tolerance, balance, and respect for the rule of law. Yet this summer when I was interviewing a number of highly motivated Canadian university students in the Magna for Canada scholarship program, many were hard pressed for an answer when I asked: "What does it mean to you to be a Canadian?"
If our foreign policy is to extend Canadian values abroad, it seems we are overdue for a thorough discussion amongst ourselves as to just what those values are. Have they remained constant since 1970, 1950, 1930, 1890? Are there new values emerging that all Canadians share? I, for one, certainly believe that there are. Perhaps in this conference we will discover the fully-rounded nature of some of these values.
The historic role of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs remains highly relevant to Canada today.
Whenever we gather at Couchiching, whatever the topic, this place is like a people's parliament. Many voices, much diversity, freedom of expression especially to explain or defend one's arguments when they are tested by others.
Here there is respect for difference, and for intelligence a respect so profound that you will find no effort here to cobble together, at the conclusion of our gathering, a common resolution or an agreed-upon statement.
Whenever we gather here, it is also the culmination of much work by volunteers who serve on the various committees of our Institute. For myself as president and on behalf of all who are in attendance, I express profound gratitude to each of the many dedicated volunteers who make Couchiching viable. Appreciation is heartily extended, too, to our many contributors and sponsors.
To enter now upon this process of provoking thought by stimulating the mind, it is an honour to introduce to you the lead-off keynote speaker, the widely-known and highly- respected journalist and author, Ross H. Munro.
Most Canadians came to know his name in those exciting days when he first went to Asia as Beijing corespondent for The Globe and Mail. Ross Munro's involvement with Asia is deep, his perspective broad. As a foreign correspondent over a 15- year period, he lived and worked in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and New Delhi.
In the course of reporting on no less than 32 nations and territories in the Pacific region during the period 1975 to 1990, his became a widely respected voice of analysis and interpretation...[by] writing covers stories for TIME magazine on the Cambodian war, the Afghan war, the Indian military build-up, and the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong, as well as other cover stories on the democratic movement in Burma and profiles of President Ferdinand Marcos and the Philippines, of Deng Xiaoping of China, of President Bhutto of Pakistan and of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. In his travels, Ross Munro has come to know many of Asia's monarchs, presidents, dictators, opposition leaders, and heads of guerrilla organizations.
From the Globe and Mail to TIME magazine, and in such journals as Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Commentary, The National Interest, and Orbis, on radio and on television, Ross Munro has shed light for millions on the hope, and the hype, and the reality, of the Asia Pacific promise.
His current and controversial book, entitled The Coming Conflict with China, has now been published in French, German, Chinese and Japanese, and has just gone into its sixth printing in the English language edition. In this book, Ross Munro has sketched a scenario for the unfolding geopolitics that is as salient to our conference as it is to all around the globe who hope to discern reality in time to avert wars, find common cause, and build a peaceful world.