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Nov 27 2017

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Robarts’ leadership in unifying the country 50 years ago should be celebrated

November 27, 2017 | By

The history books will say that the Confederation of Tomorrow conference was about the Constitution, the Quiet Revolution, official bilingualism, or the expansion of provincial powers. But at its heart, the conference was really about two things: leadership and dialogue.

If you love celebrating historic anniversaries, 2017 has been your year. Canadians celebrated the country’s sesquicentennial. Montreal celebrated its 375th birthday. We commemorated the horrifying battle of Passchendaele, which ended 100 years ago this month. And this week marks another landmark: the 50th anniversary of a historic gathering of Canada’s premiers, convened in 1967 by the most respected premier in the country, atop the almost-completed tallest building in the country.

It was called the “Confederation of Tomorrow” conference, and it took place on the top floor of the Toronto-Dominion Centre 50 years ago. The building was so new, they hadn’t installed the carpeting yet.

Our Centennial year was full of celebration and optimism. But there were also warning signs coming from Quebec, in the form of the Quiet Revolution and the emergence of a separatist movement that had begun to move from the fringes to the mainstream.

The country was also digesting the first recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Some Canadians wondered whether the country would last another decade, let alone another century, unless steps were taken to bring people closer together.

One Canadian who answered that call was Ontario’s popular premier John Robarts, who had just won his second consecutive majority government. The premier (or “prime minister” as the job was actually called at the time) invited his provincial counterparts to Ontario’s capital city to share their reflections on where the country was going.

Nine of the 10 premiers took him up on the invitation (British Columbia’s W.A.C. Bennett declined, telling Robarts “I’m lost on these issues once I cross the Rockies.”). On Nov. 27 to 30, the premiers talked about the changes that might allow the country to continue to flourish. Above all else, the conference allowed the premiers to hear directly from Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson about the changes that were transforming Quebec society and Quebecers’ sense of their place within Canada.

The initiative was politically risky. Few in Robarts’ rural conservative base were urging him to reach out to Quebec. But the premier, whose bunkmate in the navy during the Second World War was a unilingual francophone, took to heart the message that regardless of language, we were all in the same boat.

The federal government also didn’t think much of the initiative. Robarts offered Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson the chairmanship of the gathering. He declined. So did Pearson’s justice minister Pierre Trudeau, who six months later would become prime minister himself.

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But Robarts’ tenacity paid off. He may have been the only political leader in the country with the gravitas to make the conference work, playing a key role in keeping the country together.

The history books will say that the Confederation of Tomorrow conference was about the Constitution, the Quiet Revolution, official bilingualism, or the expansion of provincial powers. But at its heart, the conference was really about two things: leadership and dialogue. It was about putting short-term, local political expediency aside and taking risks in the interests of Canada’s longer-term goals.

And it was about the vision of a country that stands or falls on our ability to understand and respect one another by engaging in the sometimes painstaking process of conversation, which crucially involves listening as much as talking.

Both of these attributes — our capacity for leadership and for dialogue — need to be part of the country’s future, not just its past. This is the main reason why this week, we should not only remember the Confederation of Tomorrow conference, but celebrate it.

Granted, the challenges we face today — climate change, reconciliation, disruptive technologies, and globalization — are strikingly different from the ones the premiers conferred about in 1967. But the recipe for meeting these challenges is still the same: action in the longer-term public interest, and a commitment to strengthening mutual understanding through open-minded talking and listening.

Unlike our American friends, Canada has no revolution or war of independence for us to celebrate. In the absence of a dramatic founding event, it’s perhaps a little odd that we celebrate meetings instead.

But Canada was, is, and always will be a work in progress — a country whose ability to survive and thrive depends on our interest in making compromises and in getting to know one another better. That’s why the 50 year anniversary of John Robarts’ Confederation of Tomorrow conference is one we shouldn’t miss.

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Release Date

November 27, 2017

Publication

The Toronto Star

Author

Andrew Parkin

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