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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

President’s Opening Remarks

Patrick Boyer, Q.C., President, CIPA

Welcome to the 67th summer conference of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

Now begins our annual summer ritual, here at Geneva Park on Lake Couchiching. Since 1932, this place has been a Mecca for thoughtful Canadians, individuals of diverse backgrounds and different views who each believed they held a piece to the Canadian puzzle and wanted to discover how it fitted in.

Over the coming three days, I hope that both you and your ideas fit in. We strive for a style that is casual, here at our summer camp for the mind, but we look for thinking that is anything but casual.

Rigorous, informed, experience-based, scholarly, intuitive, deductive, inductive — all these would be good words to describe the varieties of thinking, whether expressed through critical comment, probing question, or gentle aside, which find a place here at the Couchiching Institute.

We are so Canadian in our eclecticism that is would be hard to find a more perfect vehicle for launching into this process of rethinking Canada for the 21st Century.

In welcoming you, I should note that our program topics for "rethinking Canada" have been thoughtfully developed over the past 12 months, with many regional brainstorming sessions across Canada, from Calgary to Montreal, Ottawa to Toronto, and dedicated work by our program committee.

In addition we have attracted again this year an impressive array of intellectual leaders. We have a conference that is fully-funded. We have a conference that is completely sold out, with many participants staying at satellite accommodation. Given the fact we often stay up talking till dawn, however, I don’t know why some people even bother to book rooms at all.

With a number of you here for the first time, or watching these proceedings on television, perhaps I could explain why the Couchiching Institute plays the unique role it has for nearly seven decades in Canadian public affairs.

Whenever we gather at Couchiching, whatever the topic, the 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.

Since we began in the 1930s, a style and approach to public policy has emerged which can best be described as "the Couch culture."

What is more, the historic role of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs remains highly relevant to Canada today.

Across our country in the past decades, as I certainly saw up close during nine years in Parliament and especially in my time as Parliamentary Secretary for External Affairs and later at National Defence, the policy-minded of our nation have organized themselves more and more into special interest groups and lobbies, than formerly was the case. The result has been fragmentation of the public dialogue.

Yet, not in the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

Within the wide embrace of our Institute is respect for difference, and for intelligence — a respect so profound that, at the conclusion of our gatherings, no effort is made to cobble together some generally worded compromise statement or an agreed-upon resolution.

You will not be asked to cast a vote on a policy resolution in these proceedings. We are not a political party.

Neither are we a lobby organization, nor an ideological faction. It is not our purpose here to develop programs for action — although it would not surprise you, given this setting, the topics, and the connections of people who attend, that most assuredly many historic developments began with seeds planted at Couch conferences, from the test idea for NATO in 1947 to the Canada-Chile trade agreement in 1995; from democratic economic planning to clarity in an agenda for social justice. Actions do spring from ideas, and this is a place where ideas count.

Our purpose in the Couchiching Institute is to look at emerging themes which will have a large impact upon Canadians, and try to turn down the heat of political controversy around those issues by turning up the light of understanding.

In short, the Couchiching Institute is a true and vital part of a self-governing society that is both free and democratic.

Whenever we gather here, it is the culmination of a lot of work by volunteers who serve on the various committees of our Institute.

For myself, as president, and on behalf of all of you who are in attendance — whether here in this hall or listening to these proceedings on radio, watching on television or zooming in through cyberspace to our website for the texts of all speeches given here, I wish to express profound appreciation to the dozens of dedicated volunteers who have made the work of the Couchiching Institute this year — and for nearly 70 years — possible.

Appreciation should be heartily extended, too, to our many individual contributors and our corporate and government sponsors.

In the audience tonight are many who will be speaking from this podium. One of those distinguished speakers will be Paul Martin, our country’s Minister of Finance.

I spoke with Mr. Martin in Montreal six months ago, inviting him to help us rethink Canada and the nature of our governance for the 21st century.

Why are we rethinking Canada?

When participating last year in an official foreign policy round-table at King’s College in Halifax, 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 the stated purpose of our country’s foreign policy being "to extend Canadian values abroad."

This change came about under the present government in Ottawa, when it also switched the long-standing name of the department from "external affairs" to "foreign affairs" — at a very time in the world when less and less is foreign to us. One might have thought, if a name change was needed at all, then something like "international relations" might have had a more truly Canadian ring to it.

As for this new policy to extend Canadian values abroad, that sounded somehow more American, or British or French or German; somehow more Imperial-tinged, than my Canadian sensibilities allowed or my Canadian ears were used to. Precisely which Canadian values, I wondered, are we seeking to extend to other countries?

Had I, like Rip van Winkle, been asleep for a long time. Had I awakened to discover I’d missed a great Canadian debate and public exchange during which we’d thrashed out and agreed upon "Canadian values?"

Somehow, something pretty crucial seemed to have been omitted from the equation if government officials in Ottawa were now supporting programs in other countries which purported to export our values abroad. Yet, because this is now our foreign policy, it seemed, as I suggested from this very podium one year ago tonight, that we are overdue for a thorough discussion amongst ourselves as Canadians as to just what those values might be.

Apart from that external reason, for our own domestic purposes of national political life, and for domestic programs ranging from economic well-being to cultural growth, it seemed pretty important to get a clearer grip on just who and what we are as Canadians.

As we continue to refashion our country, it is important, especially for many of us who believe in the democratic processes yet feel politically homeless when faced with the current party choices, to engage in this discussion in a context outside the partisan and electoral-driven confines of the political parties.

Some of us could certainly make our own list of fundamental Canadian values. Mine for example would start with tolerance, balance, and respect for the Rule of Law. Yet what does it mean to you to be a Canadian?

Have Canadian values remained constant since 1970, 1950, 1930, 1890? Are there new values emerging which all Canadians share?

The long Canadian discussion about our national Identity has existed for good reason, but I suspect as we shall see in these coming days here at Couchiching, both the context itself for that identity has been fundamentally transformed, and so, too, the very nature of our Canadian "identity crisis," which earlier spawned many important public cultural institutions and policies — such as the NFB, the CBC and Canada Council, to Canadian-content rules in for broadcasting, or the luckless attempt by Flora MacDonald to confront American domination in the movie theatres and of Sheila Copps to the split-run editions of American magazines.

Back in the early 1960s when I was a student of Professor Frank Underhill, he taught us to take what he called "the long view" of Canadian history. In this fashion it becomes possible to see how the entire pattern of our county’s history, and not just that of Quebec alone, has been one of "quiet revolution."

I am sure this could become particularly apparent over the coming three days, especially as we begin to take the long view of our country’s future, as well.

Perhaps in this conference we will discover the fully-rounded nature of some of these newly-emerging Canadian values. Perhaps, as a further service by the Couchiching Institute to this nation, the examination of "Canadian values" will now be a worthy, and a timely, contribution to our national evolution as we think about what we aspire to for our country’s future, and for ourselves as individual citizens of Canada.

Beauty in the Canadian garden comes from the many colours, and sizes, and varieties of the flowers which bloom in it. 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.

Welcome to Couchiching 1998!