By Mohammed Niaz
Every year there comes a day when, for some reason, Upper Canada College finds that the number of sick students dramatically increases. Parents are jamming the attendance hotline, the office assistants are scrambling to write down memos. What is the cause of this mysterious one-day pandemic? Have UCC students been cursed? The simple answer is: it’s WAC again, and the Heroes of the 21st Century have come to town for an entire day.
The World Affairs Conference was set to begin on Monday, February 7th, 2011. This year’s conference hosted a much larger field of students, inviting pupils of both public and private sectors to take part in the event. The organizers were plagued with troubles from the very beginning. Several speakers cancelled at the last minute, forcing plenary heads to scramble to find scarce replacements. Certain other private schools (to remain unnamed) (what rhymes with ranksome?) caused further issues by refusing to accept certain prominent speakers. On top of it all WAC Security was constantly on its feet dealing with bomb threats, wire taps, and misplaced chairs. Despite all the adversity that the organizers faced, they still managed to pull it together a give us a conference, perhaps the best one yet.
WAC began as usual with the Lionel Gelber Keynote Address. This year’s speaker was Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician who currently lives in Toronto and is an associate professor at the Dala Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He delivered a genuine, heart wrenching speech about his misfortunes in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. When questioned (by me) on how he proposed we eliminate the hate that has been engrained in Palestinian and Israeli societies, he didn’t have a response. He is one of the fortunate few Palestinians who was able to remove his family from the war. This solution, for obvious reasons, is not practical if applied to a large population. At the end, his message of peace and non-violence seemed a bit hypocritical, for all his talk about how one must let go of hate was negated when he proclaimed: “… the current Israeli government is bad for everyone, most of all the Israeli people themselves…” For future reference, selecting a speaker who has a more substantive message that isn’t steeped in personal tragedy would lead to a more wholesome address.
The next morning began with the Morning Panel. Centered on military intervention in fragile/rogue states, the discussion split the crowd in ways few other debates can. Opened by author John McGarry, we received a detailed and informed analysis of the past crisis in Ireland. His points remained undisputed to a large extent. The next panelist was Cheri DiNovo (who is not a PhD, contrary to popular misconceptions) whose views were unique but misplaced. Talking about the non-violent revolutions in India led by Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama’s peaceful revolts against Chinese occupancy took the discussion way off course, for they are not examples of military intervention. She seemed to be preaching a message of non-violence that was based off her arguments on the Dalai Lama’s efforts to free Tibet from the Chinese military. The blatant irony lies in the fact that all the peaceful protests have done is inspired the Chinese government to crack down even harder. During the question and answer period her remarks edged on being comical, for she defended her view points in a childish manner. IB2 Cole Bricker exposed her false arguments in a well-phrased question describing the increase in female education due to a NATO presence in Afghanistan. She responded by saying that female rights and education were some how at an all time low now. Cole rightly pointed out that under the Taliban the situation was, and would have continued to be, a lot worse. Her only response was to call him conceited. Not exactly a mature, informed speaker, I would say.
The final, and most anticipated, panelist was presidential speechwriter David Frum. The Morning Panel organizer (Kaleem Hawa, IB1 Scaddings) faced a lot of turmoil to get David Frum to agree to come speak with us. At the last minute he cancelled due to an emergency in the Middle East. Thus we all were introduced to the big head on the screen that was David Frum reporting via webcam. He spoke a lot about the Afghanistan war, being an informed presidential advisor. As he was an experienced speaker, most of his views were undisputed, for there weren’t many holes to be found in his logic. His presented his views on how the Middle Eastern nations partake in military intervention almost as much as Western nations. He quoted the example of Iran propping up a pro-Iran government in Lebanon, giving it direct access to an Israeli border. He rejected the burden many people place on the United States to be the world’s policeman, arguing that global stability was a responsibility we all share. Overall he was treated with a lot of respect due to his informative and different views, unlike another member of the panel. It’s no coincidence that he has made a living by convincing people of his views.
The most definitive feature that had me excited and set this WAC apart from previous conferences was the choice in plenaries. All the administrative parties involved finally allowed the organizers to bring in experts on controversial issues such as the Arab-Israeli Conflict or Global Climate Change. Due to the contentious nature of such topics, there was a large amount of exposure to new viewpoints. The clash between opposing speakers sparked a lot of excitement amongst students and led to increased participation. Many questions were posed which threw the pre-conceived values we all carry out of the window, leading to a healthy dialogue between speakers and students. On the rare occasion even teachers would get involved. It was an amusing sight to see Mrs. Parsons try and restrain herself from dominating the Arab-Israeli conflict plenary. As a result of such speaker-student interaction, most plenaries did away with the “small group discussions” in order to extend time spent with the real experts. This proved to be a great change from past years and will hopefully be adopted permanently by the organizers. The sheer number of students who skipped lunch (not that the quality of food had any hand in that decision) (Aramark was cooking) and were willing to forgo the Closing Panel in order to spend more time talking with speakers is a testament to the interest generated by this year’s topics.
The Closing Panel concluded the conference with a rather underwhelming comedy performance from Toronto-based act Second City. The act concentrated on trying to revitalize stale, cheesy family humor. It failed miserably and just led to many questioning looks from the student body. The funny thing is that they were hired (for an exuberant $2,000) just days before the conference due to the real closing speaker canceling. We were scheduled to be graced with the presence of the famous Indian dancer/Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mallika Sarabhai. Now that would have been real entertainment.
As the conference was concluded, I was left with a very different feeling compared to that of past years. Students were buzzing about the topics they had been exposed to all day rather than reminiscing on lost time which could have been clocked in on COD. Perhaps some have been inspired to pursue more information on certain issues and utilize the “Toolkit for Change” which Mrs. Parsons wanted to provide us each with. The conference this year has finally gained some structure and drive, taking a step in the right direction by fostering interest in global issues amongst normal students. Now we look to next year’s WAC to see if the new organizers can step it up and expand on the level of interest generated this year. Maybe we will witness a miracle where the entire UCC student body arrives in perfect health, and the curse will finally be broken.