Let’s Amend the Peace Corps Idea and Create a Canadian Venture
[NOTE: This piece was the result of press opinion that young people in Canada were softies. I submitted it to the magazine Maclean’s in June 1961, but it was not published because they had already run another piece – with a different message – in a recent edition.]
On June 19th,  the Vancouver Sun carried an editorial commenting upon the views of Dr. John I Ross, Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Ross is reported to have remarked upon the university students of to-day: “Unexcited, pessimistic, unmoved by enthusiasm for anything……committed only to be uncommitted……” For the past few months I have been having a running argument with some of my colleagues who, like Dr. Ross, see “… no hope or rebellion.…..nice people, expertly polite.” This is a distressingly frequent opinion.
As I read it, I thought of some students I have known. Of Thora Hawkey, at this moment emerging, I hope unscathed, from the isolated cloisters of the Tenri University in Japan. She had gone, knowing no sentence of Japanese, to spend two years in this centre of a strong, militant expansionist Buddhist sect, with a fellow-Canadian as the only Westerner within reach, knowing full well that every pressure would be exerted upon her for her conversion And I thought of another student, Michael Ames, carrying out fieldwork in a Ceylon village, writing half—jocularly that he was washing elephants to earn some ready cash. I remembered, too, the way my office door was besieged when I announced to my class that I was off to do research in Fiji. The enthusiasts were prepared not only for the glamour, but for the hardships and disappointments. My colleagues in the University had already shown this when we depended on students to do the basic leg-work of research, living with British Columbia Indian families while we supervisors wrote up their data as a survey of contemporary Indian life.
Don’t sell the young people of Canada short. Don’t admit that they’re a bunch of physical and intellectual softies, without the stamina to face a challenge. Of course living is soft in the present condition of Canadian life, and there are many young men and women who would draw back if presented with any other alternative. But it is we, the adults, who have created such conditions, and let us not forget it. Don’t blame youth for our own ambitions and omissions. And if we want youth to be tough—minded, we should provide the openings for them to show what they can do.
At this moment at the University of Toronto, some dozen students, screened down from a group of fifty volunteers, are preparing for service in India, Sarawak, and possibly Ceylon. They will work abroad for a year, with Government and voluntary agencies, on minimal local rates of subsistence. The most exciting thing about this scheme is that it originated with students and is carried out by students, a whole army of them who worked night and day helping organize a drive for the funds necessary to provide the travel and ancillary expenses ($2,000 for each volunteer). The originator of the group which is known as Canadian Overseas Volunteers
Who was Keith Spicer, a graduate student in political science, worked out the idea and received encouragement from Asian officials while he was gathering material in South East Asia for a thesis on Canada’s Colombo Plan. Even with the enthusiasm of his group, however, he found that if he were to make progress (for example, in fund-raising), he needed support from established seniors. His search for such support was one long disappointment, until he found ready recognition and sponsorship from Mr. Fred Stinson, a Toronto Member of Parliament.
Here is the critical question. Can student enthusiasm get the backing it needs from you and me without stifling it? Can we provide the resources, the continuity, and the support, without destroying initiative?
We have failed to recognize the direction of student interest. In the parochialism of our citizenship, we have not fully recognized that the excitement of University life is largely because it is an international life. Important though the domestic issues of Canada may be, they lack the drama and challenge of the issues which confront the peoples of Asia and Africa. Here the fight for survival is real, not hidden behind the achievement of social security. Here the concept of common humanity is put to the test as technicians of many countries and persuasions work for the benefit of others. Here new societies are in the making, examining, accepting, and rejecting many of the basic social assumptions that we tend to take for granted. And. here is one of the major challenges (together with those others which evoke a response from youth disarmament and control of nuclear fallout) to the future of mankind.
With characteristic imagination the Americans have seized upon this challenge and have based the Peace Corps movement upon it. “Movement” is indeed the right word, for despite the dampening effects of bureaucratization, the Peace Corps floats upon a ground swell of considerable magnitude. There must be literally scores of organizations in the United States, small and large, and mostly voluntary with funds drawn from the income of interested citizens, which are engaged in the task of sending young Americans abroad. The pity of it is that the Peace Corps phrase was ever coined.
For now the notion is inseparably bound up with the idea of Peace, which is the antithesis of war, and implies that young people going abroad are saving the world from cataclysm. While this hope is by no means irrelevant, in many of the potentially host countries, the notion has political overtones. It is inextricably mixed up with the Cold War, and countries can feel that they are being singled out for treatment because somehow their loyalty to the concepts of the West are in question. The American Peace Corps is now making brave attempts to live this notion down. Read the rest