Couchiching: Fun to Say and Fun to Visit

Attended my first Couchiching Conference this past weekend and got a glimpse of what political debate could look like if we could only squeeze out some of the more pathological aspects of partisanship and ideological conflict that have become business as usual in Ottawa.  The crowd of about 250 people was diverse, students and professors, politicians, political staffers and public servants, representatives of think tanks and voluntary organizations, unpaid workers and private sector leaders –  engaged Canadians.   Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gave a well-received speech on Friday morning.  Margaret MacMillan, the respected and eloquent historian, launched the proceedings expressing concern about the fraying of our social programs and warning against the dangers of certainty and those who claim to own it.  Paul Martin and Michael Wilson were there as contributors and participants.  Sylvia Ostry was there to receive a much merited award and add some policy spice as well, taking direct aim at the government’s decision to kill the long form census.

Participants had lots of opportunity to mingle in a beautiful natural setting and appropriately modest facilities.  This place is clearly about the ideas, about civil discourse.  Discounts are offered for those who might not be able to afford the fees so the mix of participants by age and background is pretty  good, obviously important for grounded policy discussion.   I had a chance to talk to young students and older academics.  I also had a chance to talk to Paul Martin and Michael Wilson and listen while they talked to one another.  I chatted with a farmer and a dentist and a self-described homemaker and I was on a panel with Conservative political strategist, Tom Flanagan and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ senior economist Armine Yalnizyan.  How cool is that.

As one would expect, disagreements were sometimes sharp but at no time did I hear the kind of name calling and empty sloganeering that so dominate the comments sections of most on-line media and have come to define parliamentary debate.  Instead of labeling one another inanely as “statists” or “anti-statists” or “socialists” or what have you, people looked for common ground where possible, asked how evidence might help resolve differences, and clarified the moral choices where differences were irreconcilable.  Reason.  Rationality.  Respectful dialogue.  Evidence.  Contrast that with Dan Gardner’s hilarious take on what has become of Ottawa.

This year,  the Conference theme was the economic meltdown and whether we are at a “watershed moment” or have already wasted the opportunity crises create for fundamental reform.  Running through the informal chats was a powerful sub-theme of what the census controversy tells us about where we are and where we may be heading.  This issue may seem too technical or remote from our everyday lives to rouse the majority of us who have tuned politics out this summer, but it has created a new and rich discussion about the role of the state, the limits of ideology and the importance of knowledge among people who have rarely agreed or even talked much in the past.  The census discussion inevitably bled into a larger discussion and concern  about the  health  of our politics and of our public institutions and how we might find a better path, one  that rejects  complacency, despair, and the mindless government bashing that seems to be all too easy – and destructive – these days.   How, in other words, do we restore a sense of the possibility of progress?

And of course there was our panel where we discussed the role of the state  and where the three of us – Tom, Armine and I –  disagreed pretty fundamentally about pretty fundamental things, but civilly,  never disagreeing for the sake of it,  and happy to find (rare) moments of common ground.

So later today and tomorrow, I will set out what I  learned at Couchiching about the role of the state, the meanings and implications of the census fracas and what all this says about our public and political institutions.

Comments
4 Responses to “Couchiching: Fun to Say and Fun to Visit”
  1. I’ll tell you one thing. Because I wasn’t at Couchiching and never will be invited there because I’m a poor, somewhat socially isolate single parent, your little conference was not DIVERSE. One voice like mine in that crowd would be louder than 100. So invite me next time!
    Karen

  2. Alan Pearson says:

    Dear Ms Krisfalusi:

    Having been associated with the Couchiching Institute for three decades, I can assure you that you would be welcome to participate in the Couchiching Conference (which takes place in early August every year); you don’t need an invitation. The Couchiching Institute even has a certain amount of money set aside to help participants who otherwise would not be be able to afford to come. Naturally, these funds are not limitless, so individuals wishing to have access to them need to apply and explain their interest in the subject-matter of the particular conference they would like to attend, and the extent of subsidy required. If you visit the website you can explore the possibilities and, if you wish, make contact with the Couchiching office for further information.

    I hope to see you at one of our future conferences.

    Kind regards,

    Alan Pearson
    Immediate Past President
    Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs

  3. Mr. Pearson,

    It’s not ‘natural’ for people to apply for assistance. I shall enumerate for you real-life examples of where I was expected to apply for assistance to qualify for a service I needed and whether or not I did and why:

    – This summer I needed daycare to continue working this summer but was short the 2000 it would cost. I asked my son’s father to pay his back child support. He didn’t answer my email. Toronto Parks and Recreation offer free recreational services, including week long summer day-camps. These are cheap to begin with, at 130 per week, but with grocery prices up 40% and my income so low I didn’t even have that much extra when school finished at the end of June. Toronto Parks and Recreation offer free recreational services, including one week of summer day-camp. I looked into this, hoping to work for one week more. Then I realized that I had to apply at the school. I know the parent that works in the community centre and she’s an awful gossip. I really, really didn’t want her to know my financial situation so I didn’t apply.

    – My son needed a computer this year. I couldn’t afford to buy one (even though a P4 with XP loaded only costs 130.00). I looked into applying to http://www.littlegeeks.org. I noted this “The computer and Internet connection provided to your household remains the property of The Little Geeks Foundation and is for your use as long as your child remains on our program.” I asked Little Geeks this: “Under what circumstances would you reclaim my son’s computer?”. They said: “If he was using it improperly”. I thought that was UBER INTRUSIVE. I learned that this company maintains an email relationship with the kids they give computers to. I was creeped out. I bet that the people who donate computers to little geeks don’t realize that they hand them out with so many strings attached! There was no way I’d allow my son to engage by email with a stranger just because that stranger works for Little Geeks, so I didn’t apply for the computer.

    – Just after Christmas two years ago I needed food and had no money to buy it. I went to the Daily Break Food Bank and had to show proof of all my sources of income. I had to show ID for myself and my son. Since I had to feed my child I applied and showed the documents. I noticed that my food allotment didn’t contain milk. I knew that the Daily Bread Food Bank recieved over a million dollars in donations, twice what they expected, due to the generosity of Canadians who were banding together as the recession hit. I asked “Why is there no milk?”. It was clear that the money that was donated hadn’t made it to my family. It was intercepted somehow. The other times I had gone to the food bank there was always a litre of fresh milk included. It is purchased by the food bank and if there is no money to purchase fresh milk that week the food bank must distribute powdered milk. Well my food bank had neither fresh milk nor powdered milk. I complained. The guy said “Do you want 2 dollars to buy milk”? I said no, I want the food bank to use the donations the way they said they would.

    Want more examples? I’m going to apply to go to Couchiching next year. I just wonder what hoops you’re gonna put me through! If your form is intrusive then I wont come. But I guarantee that if I did your conference would be more successful.

    Karen

  4. Alex, if you’re going to publish my reply to Mr. Pearson I would appreciate it if you would fix it up for me. I repeated one sentence. Copy/Copy instead of Copy/Paste!
    thanks,
    karen

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