Why Canada? Why Not Canada?

Last week, Henry Kissinger participated in a public debate. That may not seem remarkable but Kissinger – former U.S. secretary of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner, consultant, scholar – is 88 years old. And he had never before debated in public.

The venue for Kissinger’s debut was Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. That, too, may not seem remarkable. But note the proposition of the debate: “Be it resolved, the 21st century will belong to China.” And note the participants: Along with Kissinger, there were Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria, two enormously influential public intellectuals, and David Li, a powerful Chinese economist. The only Canadian on stage was the host, Rudyard Griffiths.

So why Canada? Why would this remarkable collection of foreigners gather on a stage in Toronto to discuss the fate of China before a mostly Canadian audience of 2,700 and a vastly larger audience watching via the Internet and international media partners?

The simple and correct answer is “why not Canada?”

But that won’t do, unfortunately. Because such events are rare in a nation that is still – let’s be frank – insecure, parochial, and dominated by “little Canadians.”

The “little Canadian” attitude can often be seen in foreign news produced by Canadians. If you can find foreign news produced by Canadians. For a G8 nation, a trading nation, a nation of immigrants, Canadians and their media are remarkably uninterested in what’s happening elsewhere on the planet.

Unless there’s a “Canadian connection,” of course. That’s the pathetic little phrase Canadian reporters toss in as a sort of apology to Canadians for asking them to notice something happening beyond our borders. The story will be about some natural disaster, or war, or some noble undertaking in a benighted country somewhere. But that’s not enough. Why should little Canadians care about distant lands populated by inscrutable foreigners? Out comes the “Canadian connection.” An aid worker from Thunder Bay. A stranded ex-pat. Whatever. There always has to be a “Canadian connection” because Canadians couldn’t possibly care about a drama on the other side of the world unless a Canadian is involved, preferably one who says something about how he misses hockey or Tim Hortons or one of the other wretched clich├ęs little Canadians clutch to their tiny bosoms.

You can see it in federal election campaigns, too. Little Canadians don’t care about foreign policy, even when our soldiers are dying in some corner of a foreign field. Strategists know this. That’s why there’s more chance foreign policy will feature in the race for Chibougamau town council than a campaign to decide who will lead this big, educated, prosperous, successful nation. But a bridge? Bridges keep little Canadians from driving into rivers and so little Canadians care about bridges. Which is why, during the French-language debate last April, funding for a single bridge was discussed at length, while the obligatory Canada’srole-in-the-world question produced only some brief boasting about how much money Canada has spent on Haiti – which was really just shilling for votes in a few Montreal ridings.

We should have been embarrassed. We weren’t.

That attitude is what makes the debate last week remarkable. It wasn’t “Canadian” in any simple sense and the organizers made no attempt to invent some insipid “Canadian connection.”

It was a genuinely global event that brought together some of the best debaters available anywhere to discuss one of the planet’s most important issues. In Canada.

Best of all, it’s one of a series. The Munk Debates are sponsored by mining mogul Peter Munk. “Canadian” mining mogul, I suppose I should add. But “Canadianness” isn’t the heart of what Munk and Griffiths are doing. Substance is. And confidence. The last Munk Debate featured legendary provocateur Christopher Hitchens and former British prime minister Tony Blair debating the role of religion in the world. Two extraordinary men. One critical question. On a stage in Canada.

And why not Canada? That’s the antithesis of the “little Canadian” attitude. We need more of it.

And there is more. By coincidence, I was in Toronto at the time of the Munk Debate to speak at ideaCity, an event that is as difficult to summarize as it is scintillating.

IdeaCity brings together physicists, musicians, inventors, astronomers, adventurers, biologists, artists, novelists, entrepreneurs, magicians, and the occasional journalist to keep things from getting too clever. Plus more. Far more. Speakers are told they have 17 minutes to talk about whatever they’re passionate about. Go. The result is a high-rotation, high-wattage, high-energy cavalcade that keeps rolling for three wonderful days.

Serendipity rules. One night, I was chatting with the volunteer driving a shuttle between ideaCity’s swellegant cocktail party and the hotel. He’s an investment banker, so we had a fabulous conversation about the psychology of traders. Imagine three days of that. Hell for some, I suppose. But heaven for me and many others.

IdeaCity is the brainchild of Moses Znaimer, impresario, innovator, visionary, and living rebuke to little Canadians. Flip through the thick book of ideaCity presenters and you’ll find few references to nationality. Many are, in fact, Canadian, but they were invited because they had something to say, not because the organizers fear the smart, curious, cosmopolitan people in the audience won’t care about something lacking a “Canadian connection.”

As with the Munk Debates, the confidence to let go of parochialism results in a genuinely worldclass event. In Canada.

A coda: ideaCity concluded with a garden party at Moses Znaimer’s indescribably beautiful Toronto home. I had a late departure so I was around at the end, when almost everyone had gone, and someone sat down at Znaimer’s piano.

It was Cameron Carpenter, an internationally renowned organist who had given a stunning performance at the conference. Now he was tickling the ivories. With five or six people watching.

I sat down and listened, in awe. That word has been devalued by counterfeiting, but I mean it in the dictionary sense. I experienced awe.

After 15 minutes or so, Carpenter started playing an unfamiliar but wonderful arrangement. Then I caught the melody woven into it. Duh-DUH-duhduh. It was O Canada. And it was being played like I have never heard it before by an American virtuoso who lives in Berlin.

On the wall behind the piano was one of Charles Pachter’s iconic paintings of the flag.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was a great Canadian moment.