Origins of Canadian University Service Overseas, 1961

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, [1961] 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.

We in Canada must disassociate ourselves from it. If we cannot have young Canadians working with young Ghanaians and Cambodians on the basis of technical partnership and human friendship without political or persuasive motivation, there is little point in sending our youth abroad. For if we send people with political and persuasive motivations we are assuming a predominantly one—way direction of communication. Yet we need to learn too. Our young Canadians will be wiser, more mature, more sensitive, and. more capable of contributing to the national life of Canada, if they go in the spirit of learning and receiving. Politics must be kept out of it.

We can’t quite achieve this. For one thing, no one in Canada has yet coined a counter-phrase with the impact to rival “Peace Corps”. Whenever one of our Canadian movements hits the press “Peace Corps” is somehow in the headline, even when the news item is that the movement differs from the Peace Corps. For another, if Canadians are to go abroad in substantial numbers, Government funds will inevitably be drawn in, and Governments are by their nature political.

But nevertheless, we can go a long way to redress the balance.

Because we can learn from the experience of our American colleagues, we can perhaps avoid some errors. Canadian Universities are accustomed to receiving Government funds and yet retaining independence and objectivity. And. in Canada the universities have taken the lead, and have formed an organization which can develop and co—ordinate our own approach to the movement.

In the early part of June, [1961] during the Canadian Learned Society meetings in Montreal, the Canadian National Commission for UNESCO called a meeting attended by the Presidents of most Canadian universities, and of university based organizations which are sending Friendship Volunteers abroad. The latter groups included Canadian Overseas Volunteers at Toronto, Voluntaires Canadiens d’Outre-Mer of Laval, the President’s Committee on Student Service Overseas at the University of British Columbia, World University Service, the National Federation of Canadian University Students, Student Christian Movement, Canadian Association of Medical Students and. Interns, and several others.

At this meeting an organization was formed to be called Canadian University Service Overseas. President Bissell of Toronto is Honorary Chairman. Chairman of the Executive Committee is Mgr. Hugh Somers, Rector of St. Francis Xavier University, which, perhaps more than any other Canadian institution, has a long and distinguished experience of adult education work of international scope and interest. Other members of the executive committee are students and faculty from campuses throughout Canada. The constitution of the new organization insists that students be represented in all elements of the body, since the initiative and spirit of the enterprise is student based. Each University has the right to become affiliated, either directly, or by assigning the responsibility to an appropriate campus organization.

During this summer CUSO will gather together job descriptions of work that young Canadian can do in Asia and Africa. The Canadian National Commission for UNESCO will provide the facilities to enable this to be done. At the same time, moves will be made to establish a national office. (The Secretary Is Mr. Donald Wilson of the Student Christian Movement, and the office is temporarily located with the Canadian National Commission for UNESCO at 140, Wellington St., Ottawa. It is hoped that the Canadian Universities Foundation will eventually provide the home.)

Come the fall, the affiliated organizations should have a clear picture of what can be done in the countries concerned. They can then recruit students who will be graduating in the spring, raise funds to make their movement possible, and prepare and orient them. Young engineers, interns, teachers, home economists, agriculturalists will be studying to go abroad, as well as taking their normal courses and preparing for exams.

            At the same time, each affiliated group will be working on its own responsibility. Some already have developed their own particular links abroad. Canadian Overseas Volunteers at Toronto has good communications with voluntary organizations in India, and with Government in Sarawak. We at the University of British Columbia are sending this summer two home economists to Ghana, as part of a team of nine being sent by an American organization known as Volunteers for International Development. They will work with women’s education teams organized by the Department of Social Welfare and Community Development, which will provide them with basic subsistence. With the support of a publicity campaign organized by the Vancouver Sun, we are raising six thousand dollars to take care of transportation, a modest addition to a stipend of fifty dollars a month, insurance, and similar contingency items. In parallel with this, we have forwarded the names of eight teachers qualified in mathematics, science and French, to the Government of Ghana for possible recruitment within the Ghanaian civil service. Other schemes involving medical personnel, engineers, and agriculturalists are in the early stages.

Central to the concept are two ideas.

One is that the young people going abroad are not necessarily going to make careers for themselves. They are giving one or two years of their life to the service of the overseas country, and incidentally to Canada. They will not make money out of it. In most cases the stipend is at local subsistence rates of pay, and no savings could be conceived. Some of these young people may decide to stay on, and make careers out of the work, but this is not the major purpose.

Another is that the people of Canada should be behind them. Imagine the difference if a young person going abroad as a Friendship Volunteer can say that his visit was made possible because of the interest of hundreds of Canadians who thought it was worth while. This is precisely what is happening with our two home economists, Judy Foote and Jocelyn King, who are going to Ghana f or eighteen months this year. We could have knocked. on the doors of big business, and asked for a six thousand dollar cheque (as the movement grows, we will of course need such cheques). But instead, we approached the man in the street, who is contributing fifty cents, a dollar, five dollars, or a hundred dollars. Seventeen students on one night’s work approaching householders netted $333 — not bad, you must admit, for such a small group. We are confident that by the end of June and three weeks’ work, the funds will be raised.  And the trouble will be worth it if Judy Foote and Jocelyn King can say, when they get to Ghana, “One thousand Vancouverites were interested enough in our work with you to dip into their pockets so that we could come”. And if as a result of our experience we can next set our sights at $40,000 to send ten students on the next round.

That ‘s why I say, let‘s make this a Canadian adventure. Let us demonstrate that Canada is not the snug self—satisfied country it is often held up to be. Let us show that friendship and technical assistance can be achieved without political overtones or a cold war philosophy. And above all, let us get behind the young people of Canada, particularly those who are willing to try out their idealism under the cold conditions of reality.