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What Is Couchiching?
A Civil Place to Disagree
Since its inaugural conference in 1932, the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs played a pre-eminent role in Canada’s civic discourse as a national forum on public affairs. In 2018, CIPA and the annual conference that took place every August on the shores of Lake Couchiching near Orillia, Ontario, ended. Today, thanks to the Canadian International Council, Couchiching’s legacy endures, with the promise of Couchiching conferences to come, in various forms. The first event was Raising Hope: Canada in the World after COVID-19, which took place online on January 30, 2021, with speakers from across Canada: the Right Honourable Paul Martin, Green Party leader Annamie Paul, Josh Hjartson of Deloitte, Dr. Danielle Martin of Women’s College Hospital and Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, moderated by CBC hosts Carol Off and Adrian Harewood. You can watch it below:
A civil place to disagree, Couchiching has excelled at attracting Canadians from all walks of life to participate in a vigorous and passionate exchange of ideas on national and international matters of significance, in an effort to create a commons for meaningful engagement. The core of its mission was to increase awareness, understanding and knowledge of domestic and international issues among people in Canada through open and inclusive discussion, without advocacy or partisanship.
Couchiching brings together Canadians in open, inclusive discussion with leading intellectuals, opinion makers, national leaders, politicians, cultural icons, policymakers, artists, scientists and diverse experts from Canada and around the globe to discuss and debate the central issues and policy challenges of our times. These exchanges are at the heart of a vital and inclusive democracy. All of our events underscore a belief in the importance of thoughtful, informed exploration of the issues shaping our world. That belief was underscored by the Couchiching Award for Public Policy Leadership, which honoured the accomplishments of Canadians who have demonstrated bold leadership in public policy. The award recognized exemplary actions taken by an individual to formulate and implement policy that has had a positive impact on Canada or a community within Canada. Recipient included Jane Jacobs, Henry Morgentaler, Elizabeth May, the Honourable Lincoln Alexander, the Honourable Stéphane Dion, David Dodge, Mark Carney, the Honourable William Davis and Ann Golden.
CIPA was always a non-partisan, not-for-profit, charitable, volunteer-run organization. That tradition continues, and we encourage active participation in our volunteer activities.
In a spur of idealism and pragmatism in the midst of the Great Depression, the National Council of the YMCA established in Geneva Park on Lake Couchiching — the “Lake of Many Winds” and the traditional home of the Chippewa Rama First Nation — a 10-day public education seminar under the auspices of the newly formed Canadian Institute on Economics and Politics (aka Canadian Institute on Economic and International Affairs). The purpose was to understand the issues of the day by creating an accessible gathering place for the free exchange of ideas on common Canadian concerns. R.E.G. Davis, Secretary of the YMCA’s National Council and his team of influential volunteers from business , labour, government, social agencies, the clergy made up the Institute’s first Program Committee. They launched the first Couchiching Conference in August 1932 and it was titled Depression and Capitalism, obviously focused on the central question occupying Canadians of that era. Following the first publication of conference proceedings in 1935, the summer conference gained an audience far beyond its YMCA stakeholders and made up of a cross-section of Canadian society. Until the last conference in 2016, the Couchiching conference drew influential speakers and Canadians from all walks of life to this lakeside setting, in a forum that has no parallel.
In the 1930s the Institute focused on social reform and the economy while in the 1940s and through World War II, discussions focused on planning and reconstruction. In the 1950s, CBC Radio, through its Public Affairs division, began to broadcast the conference proceedings and the Institute became a household name across Canada. Meanwhile, it broadened its exploration of topics from international affairs to cultural, technological, and even scientific subjects of interest. The relationship with the CBC lasted until 1969, well into the television era when competing demands made their way into the broadcast world. “Losing” the 18-year partnership with CBC meant that the Institute became a more self-sufficient volunteer-run operation and began a new funding model that has lasted to this day.
In 1979, the Institute changed its name from the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs to the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs. It offered programs across Canada through its Roundtables and Conversations, wherever members of the Institute congregated, including Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Orillia, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto — in addition to its signature annual conference on the Lake of Many Winds, Lake Couchiching. The last conference to take place at the lake was The Canada Project: Identity, Citizenship and Nationhood in a Changing World, in August 2016.
Much has changed since its early years but, even in its new form, Couchiching remains vitally important and relevant to Canadians as we wrestle with a transforming society and global scene. We will continue to engage Canadians and curate open conversations on issues that matter — civilly, passionately and thoughtfully.