After then prime minister Pierre Trudeau announced his personal peace initiative at the 1983 U of G peace and security conference, he turned to conference co-ordinators Profs. Henry Wiseman, centre, and Gunnar Boehnert and asked: "Well, guys, how did I do?"
PHOTO FROM LIBRARY ARCHIVES
Since the death last month of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, people across Canada have been remembering the personal and political impact he had on their lives. The U of G community is not immune to this posthumous Trudeaumania, as many recall his visit to campus in October 1983.
Trudeau chose the U of G conference "Peace and Security in a Nuclear Age" to launch a major peace initiative, his personal effort to break the stalemate in arms reduction talks between the United States and the U.S.S.R. The conference provided a non-partisan platform for Trudeau to announce his strategy for political confidence-building among the world's superpowers, and his attendance focused world attention on U of G for one heady evening.
An international media corps of 150 reporters attended the prime minister's Oct. 27 speech in Peter Clark Hall.
The Ontarion office became media headquarters, and 1985 BA graduate Marty Williams, who was editor of the Ontarion at the time, says it gave student writers a rare opportunity to rub shoulders and share a beer with journalists from major Canadian, U.S. and European dailies, international broadcast networks and magazines. "We felt like we were on the map," he says.
Bob Megens, a 1982 B.Sc. graduate who was president of the Central Student Association (CSA) at the time, agrees that the peace conference raised the University's profile. It focused attention - at least in Canada - on the fact that U of G had something more to offer than agriculture, veterinary medicine and nutrition studies, he says.
"I think in a real sense it was when the University of Guelph became an adult in the realm of universities. It was great knowing that people like Trudeau thought we were important enough, that people noticed us."
It was Trudeau who really attracted the world's attention, but what attracted him to Guelph was the conference itself and its distinguished participants, who came to discuss mutual concerns about the dangerous levels of nuclear weapons and Cold War tensions.
The conference co-ordinators were Profs. Henry Wiseman, Political Science, and Gunnar Boehnert, History, experts in international affairs and United Nations peacekeeping. Their reputations and thoughtful preparation brought delegates from NATO, the UN and religious and educational institutions, as well as representatives of the superpowers themselves. Wiseman also credits staff in the former School of Continuing Education, including Virginia Gray, now director of open learning.
He and Boehnert had hosted other such powerful guests as invited lecturers for a senior course called "Arms Race vs. Arms Control." In fact, the idea for the conference grew from the same concerns that shaped the U of G course. In the 1970s, nuclear war was a very real threat that created a great deal of public angst, says Wiseman.
"During the conference, the general public and students from Guelph and other universities conducted a peace march through the centre of town."
Flor Marie Buitrago, a 1988 BA graduate, was a student in the Boehnert/Wiseman course and attended the peace and security conference as a new Canadian. She came to Canada from Colombia in 1978 and became a Canadian citizen in 1982. She says she couldn't believe how down to earth Trudeau was and how easy it was for students to approach him and question him. "It was unbelievable how he paid attention to us - young kids asking silly questions."
The whole conference was a fascinating experience, says Buitrago, who now teaches Spanish at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "I went to many sessions chaired by so many important people from Canada, the United States, the NATO Alliance and European countries. I still have in my office the book that was distributed after the conference."
She says the conference delegates and those who came as invited lecturers to the classroom made her strongly aware of how important it was to effect an arms control treaty or agreement.
Wiseman says Trudeau's peace initiative met with some cynicism in the press, which asked: "How could Canada effect a peaceful solution to the arms race?" At the time, Boehnert was serving as an adviser to NATO, and he remembers meeting with Trudeau and the Canadian arms control task force in Ottawa in January 1984 when the PM expressed surprise that his peace initiative was still generating world attention. Yet, says Wiseman, Trudeau "had made an enormous impact in the international arena, and as he travelled from Guelph to Washington and Moscow, his efforts highlighted the nuclear issue and public concerns." Canada's PM provided an opportunity for the superpowers to talk to each other in a meaningful way, says Wiseman. "The public attention it created was important for him, for Canada and for the arms race."
Trudeau's peace initiative is now recognized as the last missile in his political arsenal. He announced his resignation only four months later. When Boehnert arrived in Geneva in February 1984, he was met by the Canadian ambassador with the words: "So you knew all along that Trudeau would retire."
"I was thunderstruck because I didn't know about his intention to retire," says Boehnert. "There wasn't a hint, much less a word, about his possible departure as we were sitting around the table in Ottawa." Another example of what a private person the former prime minister was, Boehnert says.
Megens's most vivid memory of Trudeau was how little interest he had in small talk. "I asked him how he liked our city, and he said: 'I've only just arrived - how can I know what your city is like?'" Megens says he quickly changed gears and talked instead about student politics. "He impressed me as a person interested in ideas and learning - not interested in hyperbole. Trudeau obviously had a sharp intellect, sharp in his ability to understand issues and sharp in intolerance for those who didn't feed it right away."
Beyond the meeting with Trudeau, Megens says the U of G conference had a lasting impact on his life. He sat on an organizing committee where he developed skills in planning and implementation that he still uses today in his business as an educational consultant.
"It was great enough to be CSA president, but I really got lucky in being able to participate in such an event. It opened the world to me. So much of undergraduate education now is about gaining professional degrees and job skills, but that focus can be limiting. Events like the peace and security conference were expanding and gave you a horizon that was unfathomable. I felt like I was a citizen of the world in the sense of what it took to understand it and the goals and ambitions of the people who populate it. I really felt connected at that time - something greater than being able to get a job."
Williams still remembers the speech Trudeau gave at the conference. He was impressed by its references to the Gwelfs and Ghibellines, warring factions who tore Europe apart for much of the 12th and 13th centuries. "It was an early version of total war - on a continental scale," said Trudeau. "And because both history and geography are written by the victorious, the name of Gwelf lives on, given to this place as the proud heritage of a ruling dynasty."
In 1827, of course, the city of Guelph was named by founder John Galt in honour of these ancestors of Queen Victoria. Williams, now acting dean of students at the University of Toronto's University College, says he didn't know the early history of the name until he heard Trudeau's recounting.
"When somebody like Pierre Trudeau comes to town and teaches you your own history, it's a remarkable thing."
Both Williams and Megens say the peace conference visit made them feel important as students of the University of Guelph and left them with the knowledge that you can participate in world events if you have the vision and the will to do it. And Wiseman believes that is a legacy that will always be true.