Turning the Tables on the OECA Prime Minister Series: The Speakers and Audience React

By Lynda Rivington

The sesquicentennial project of the Old Ottawa East Community Association (OECA) celebrating the life and times of Canada’s Prime Ministers has been so successful that it is continuing on into 2018.

This series of free monthly lectures was the brainchild of current and former OECA presidents Phyllis Odenbach Sutton and John Dance. Their initial concerns about a small audience were immediately quashed when it was standing-room only at the first lecture last March at the Old Town Hall.  The series was moved to a much larger room at St. Paul University which came on board as a co-sponsor.

An outstanding array of speakers volunteered their time free of charge to come and speak. In order of appearance, here is who we have heard from so far:

  • Richard Clippingdale, former director of Canadian Studies at Carleton University and author of Laurier: His Life and World presented on Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
  • Dr. Philippe Azzie with the public opinion research firm Phoenix Strategic Perspectives lectured on Sir John A. Macdonald.
  • Greg Donaghy, Deputy Director, Policy Research Division, Global Affairs Canada and author of Grit: The Life and Times of Paul Martin Sr. talked about Sir Robert Borden.
  • Dr. Stephen Azzi, associate professor of political management, history and political science at Carleton University lectured on Lester B. Pearson.
  • Louis St-Laurent was covered by Dr. Xavier Gélinas, the Canadian History Museum’s Curator of Political History.
  • We heard about Mackenzie King from Dr. Norman Hillmer, Carleton’s Chancellor’s Professor for History and International Affairs.
  • Paul Litt from Carleton’s Department of History and the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies and author of Trudeaumania spoke on Pierre Trudeau.
  • Lakehead University’s Dr. Michael Stevenson covered John Diefenbaker.

Through these lectures, we learned more about our leaders and the events that helped shape some of their decisions. Sometimes this sparked an interest not there before as it did for Alta Vista resident Lois Jensen. “On a few occasions, I came home and immediately went to the computer to further my knowledge of the prime minister spoken about. That was mainly when the PM featured had not been my favourite but the speaker pricked my interest to learn more.”

Speakers

Did the presenters themselves have any expectations or concerns before coming to speak to us?

Dr. Phil Azzie was very pleased to learn that something like this was being organized to celebrate Canada’s Prime Ministers. “It struck me as a welcome antidote to the ‘bread-and-circuses’ approach that characterized some of the official Canada 150 celebrations. I was honoured and pleased to participate in the series as a speaker and take pleasure in attending the other talks as a member of the audience.”

“In terms of my own presentation,” Dr. Azzie went on to say, “I was not sure what to expect – for example, how many people would attend, would they ask questions, what types of questions would they ask? I am impressed by the consistently large number of people who show up for these talks and heartened to see so many people interested in our country’s history. I am also impressed by the level of engagement and thoughtfulness of audience members.”

Dr. Xavier Gélinas, too, was pleasantly surprised by the knowledge level of the audience. “I expected a group of interested persons but I didn’t expect such a high degree of culture, memories, readings, etc. This became immediately and pleasantly apparent to me in the informal brief conversations before the talk, in the Q&A session, and the informal chats after the Q&A. It is very rewarding for a presenter to have such an audience.”

“To have been invited for such a ‘generalist’ presentation was beneficial to me,” Dr. Gelinas went on to say. “Professional historians and/or academics in general always incur the risk of over-specialization. It is very useful to be forced to express one’s ideas seriously and rigorously, to be sure, but succinctly and accessibly. The OECA has prepared me well for a second ‘narrower’ talk on Prime Minister St-Laurent that I will be presenting to an academic audience later in 2018 by allowing me to recreate an overall scenery, so to speak, before zooming in on a specific angle.”

“This was a remarkable initiative from the get-go,” commented historian Greg Donaghy who presented on Sir Robert Borden. “The organizers have done an incredible job engaging the Old Ottawa East community, which responded with great enthusiasm. The sessions were lively, with lots of challenging questions. Canadians – or at least those living in Old Ottawa East – are clearly interested in discovering their past, warts and all.”

Audience Reaction

Just what did the audience get out of the lectures? Has the series changed their perspective of Canadian history? Has their interest in Canadian history been enlivened?

For local resident Heather Jarrett, this series has definitely awakened her interest in Canadian history. “I follow federal politics fairly closely so it has been curious to hear how former prime ministers were or were not successful in building alliances and developing compromises amongst their opposition to move policy forward. Historically, I think there was more of an attempt in the past to govern Canada for all of its citizens, rather than only for the interests of those constituents in the governing party.”

“The presenters have been careful to show the positive and negative features of their subject, and to describe the context (economic and moral) within which they governed, so we have been treated to a fair representation of our former prime ministers. They have been particularly impressive in the question periods after their presentations where their depth of knowledge was on display.”

Lois Jensen, quoted earlier, added, “Every presenter has been well prepared and enthusiastic about the person featured. Having this series during Canada’s sesquicentennial has been one of the highlights of the year for me.”

Glebe resident and former chair of the Ottawa Board of Education Lynn Graham concurred. “For me, this series was definitely a highlight of Canada’s sesquicentennial year so I am pleased that it is continuing into 2018.”

“Congratulations to the OECA for organizing and hosting. It has been so informative and enjoyable. Kudos to the excellent and learned speakers who all contributed on a voluntary basis and who presented balanced views of the prime ministers. Thanks to Saint Paul University for accommodating the sessions as their popularity grew beyond the space at the Old Town Hall. No doubt the podcasts will be equally popular. The series also offered community engagement with neighbours and friends.”

Dr. Gélinas offered up some practical observations. “The room for these prime ministerial presentations is excellent and the fact it is located within a university gives extra credibility to the OECA and to the speakers. The email and Twitter announcements are effective. The materiel organization – microphone, lighting, availability of chairs, heating/air conditioning – is impeccable. As a result, the audience is impressive in size, and this project is impressive for a totally volunteer local borough association. I tip my hat.”

Lois Jensen also commented on the venue. “It has allowed each speaker to be heard easily as well as allowing the audience to readily view the video enhancement. Hopefully the series will be available for public consumption since it has been so outstanding. I salute the OECA for organizing this series and for getting such outstanding speakers every time which is a credit to the organizers.”

Each lecture is being taped by the firm of Nick Masciantonio (CommuniquéDirect – Video Production & Streaming Services) and, once completed, the series will be available for viewing on YouTube. Keep checking the community website at ottawaeast.ca as more information becomes available.

Upcoming presentations include Alexander Mackenize in January and Jean Chrétien in February.

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