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Once a year, Desmond Morton and his loyal troops at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, including public education coordinator Lynne Darroch and secretary Natalie Zenga, roll up their sleeves and set to work organizing a humdinger of a conference.
Two years ago, MISC's conference on the teaching of Canadian history sparked discussions about pedagogy from coast to coast.
Last year, a MISC conference on free trade in North America drew many of the free trade agreement's key architects to McGill, including former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former U.S. president George Bush. It attracted widespread media attention and made Morton an enemy for life in Senator Pat Carney; a onetime Mulroney trade minister, Carney believes the conference gave her contributions short shrift.
So what's on tap this year? Citizenship.
It might sound a little on the tame side, but Morton expects Citizenship 2020: Assuming responsibility for our future, to prompt some raucous debates.
"There is an incredible variety of issues related to citizenship. Who should we let into Canada? How do we decide? How do we want to train our young people to become citizens?
"Why is it that when Canadians go to vote, they so often resent the outcome? You see that in universities too. A fellow is a respected colleague until he becomes dean. Then he's the idiot cutting budgets. Where does the fault lie? Is it in our infantile expectations or do people's brains freeze when they're in positions of authority?"
Citizenship can be a contentious topic -- as former Quebec citizenship minister Robert Perrault discovered recently with his own much criticized conference on the subject as it relates to Quebec.
"I don't think [the government] quite expected the kind of hyphenated identifications we witnessed at the conference," notes Morton.
"They were certain everyone would identify with the great anonymous collective called Quebec. Instead, you saw people demonstrating allegiance to their various social, political, ethnic and health statuses."
As usual, MISC is attracting an all-star roster for the conference, including former national NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley, philospher and best-selling author Mark Kingwell (his new book is about -- you guessed it -- citizenship), The Toronto Star's Graham Fraser, Le Devoir's Michel Venne and a host of academic heavyweights from across the land.
And, as usual, the workshops -- 24 in all -- will involve some interesting combinations. McGill's William Watson, an economist and right-of-centre National Post contributor will sit beside Broadbent for a discussion about corporate citizenship. Alberta political scientist Tom Flanagan, a critic of special status for aboriginal peoples, will share the podium with Gerald Alfred, a native expert who wrote a paper on Mohawk self-government for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Their shared topic, examining the future relationship of natives with Canada, is entitled "Equals, Citizens Plus or Separate Nations."
Award-winning author Denise Chong (The Concubine's Children), a member of the MISC advisory board, will also be taking part. She will be writing her own book about citizenship, drawing ideas, at least in part, from the MISC conference. As conference taskmaster, Morton is advising all participants to be brief. He wants to encourage long and lively Q and A sessions with audience participation.
"I hate going to a conference and listening to some academic drone on for two hours in a session that's only supposed to last for an hour and a half. The beauty of these things is that they provide an opportunity for interactions and discussions."
The conference may be Morton's last. His term as director of MISC comes to an end soon. Apart from conference-organizing, he's been busy fundraising."We've been spending a lot of time fundraising for this one. The corporate world isn't as keen on this subject as it was for the free trade agreement." MISC has secured support for the conference from Citizenship Canada and Heritage Canada as well as some corporate sponsors.
Morton is also the scholar most likely to get a call from the media about anything related to Canada; Pierre Trudeau's death has kept his phone ringing off the hook.
And he serves as an advisor for projects such as the CBC's upcoming epic miniseries on the history of Canada. "The e-mails from Morton alone would fill a book," the CBC's Mark Starowicz told Toronto Life.
Morton says he looks forward to being a humble history professor and to completing some unfinished book projects once he steps down from the directorship. Candidates to succeed him include Carleton University's Peter Emberley, author of a widely discussed attack on political correctness, and Concordia University anthropologist David Howes, an expert on Canadian culture, law, consumption and the senses.
But first things first. There is a humdinger of a conference to survive.
"As usual with a conference, I expect no solid answers," says Morton. "I expect a healthy confusion. That's good; it opens you up to new ways of thinking."
Anyone interested in registering for the conference or finding out more about it can call 398-2658 or visit www.arts.mcgill.ca/programs/misc/conference/first.htm on the web. The conference takes place on Oct. 20 & 21.