The Prospects of a North American Project: The 72nd Annual Conference of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs

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FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, the governments of Canada and the United States were into the final weeks of fevered negotiations on the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Proponents claimed the dawning of a new age of economic prosperity; detractors bemoaned the end of Canadian sovereignty. Five years later, the three governments of North America, including Mexico, placed the last touches on what was to become the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In August of this year, the Couchiching Institute decided it was time to bring together some of the founders, detractors and commentators of the day, as well as current leaders in government, academia and the private sector, to assess the impact of those agreements on the North American community. More importantly, participants in the conference "Continentalism: What's in it for us?" examined the likelihood of closer and greater continental integration and the impact that it would bring to North American life.

The Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs has hosted an annual conference on domestic and international public policy issues for 72 years. Born in the social and economic flux of the early 1930s, Couchiching brings together decision-makers from the public and private sectors, representatives of the academic, cultural and not-for-profit sectors, students, and interested Canadians from every walk of life to engage in spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and no-holds-barred argument over the direction and focus of public policy. Unlike some other prestigious conferences, Couchiching's doors are open to anyone who wishes to register. Couchiching's objective is to create in Canada a force for greater citizen engagement in public discourse. Couchiching reaches out to Canadians through its annual conference, its televised proceedings, year-round events in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and its Web site, encouraging Canadians to become engaged in issues of critical importance to their lives, to the social and political fabric of the country and of the wider international community. Each summer, more than 250 delegates spend four days at a YMCA conference centre just outside of Orillia, on the shores of Lake Couchiching, to listen, engage and debate. Canada is a richer place for it.

The summer of 2003 brought together speakers and delegates from Canada, the United States and Mexico to look at the issue of North American continental integration. Canadian perspectives were given by David Dodge, Governor of the Bank of Canada; well-known author and nationalist Mel Hurtig; Hassan Yussuff of the Canadian Labour Congress; Chief Economist Renee St-Jacques of Industry Canada; the Honourable Michael Wilson; Judith Maxwell of the Canadian Policy Research Networks; writer and retired journalist Anthony Westell; the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy; Elizabeth McDonald of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association; Ron Atkey Senior Partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP; Alan Nymark, former deputy minister of Environment Canada; and the Honourable Bill Graham. American speakers included Robert Fauver, former G7/G8 sherpa; Stephen Kelly, Deputy Head of Mission at the US Embassy in Ottawa; Anthony DePalma of the New York Times; Stephen Handelman of Time magazine; Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr.; Edward Asner (who was most entertaining and needed little introduction); and former Undersecretary of State Frank Loy. Finally, we heard insight and perspective on Mexico from Ambassador Andres Rozental, President of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations; Undersecretary for Economic Relations and International Cooperation Dr. …