Opening Speech – Ottawa Conference, Dr Youri Cormier

Mesdames et Messieurs, Bonjour, et Bienvenue à la 90ième edition de la Conférence d’Ottawa sur la sécurité et la défense. Je m’appelle Youri Cormier et je suis le directeur exécutif de l’Institut de la Conférence des Associations de la défense.

The Conference of Defence Associations institute. You realize, right, that of the four words in the name of our organization, three of them mean the exact same thing: an institute, an association, and a conference. Those are synonyms for people getting together.

If we say it three times, it must be because we consider these people to be very important. So who are they?

The CDA is a group of 40 member associations who represent over 400,000 active and retired members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

But we’re also much smaller community of highly engaged volunteers that include sponsors, donors, government stakeholders, research fellows in Canada and the USA, as well as board members composed of retired flag and generals officers, senior public servants, and ambassadors, as well as business leaders, and academics.

And there’s the staff, who brings it all to life: Jennifer Giguère, Olivier Duhaime, Valerie Aji, Jane Leakey, Josh Malm, Marc Olivier Paquet Cantin, and Megan Martins da Ponte.

Together we conduct research and analysis, host events, and manage education programming with the purpose of fostering a facts-based, rational approach to Canadian defence & security policy. And I suppose that explains why we also had to add the word “defence” to our name.

Avant de continuer, je veux commencer en reconnaissant le fait qu’événement se déroule sur les terres traditionnelles et territoire non-cédé de la nation Algonquine Anishinaabe.

J’encourage tous nos audituers à garder cela en tête lorsque nous discuteront les concepts de la sovereineté, le territoire et l’aggression dans les deux prochains jours. Nous devons comprendre le passé afin de construire un meilleur future. C’est un sujet sur lequel je reviendrai.

Here we are. In the flesh. In Ottawa. It is really, really good to see you all in person after 2 years.

You might have noticed it’s a smaller crowd than last time in the room. But that’s just an optical illusion.

If you look around this room more carefully, and count, you’ll note that there are in fact nearly 2,000 people sitting here with us. Most of them are watching online. Proof that times have changed in two years. They were two difficult years.

Je veux prendre un moment pour offrir mes sympathies à tous ceux et celles qui ont perdu des amis et des members de leur famille dans les deux dernières années. Je sais que nous sommes nombreux à avoir été endeuilli.

I want to thank everyone in uniform who deployed to the elder care facilities across the country – you were there when we needed you. And I want to salute all our frontline care workers. You didn’t just do their job, we went well beyond that. Your unrelenting courage, energy, and resilience were a service to the nation. Thank you.

The world is a completely different place from where we left off 2 years ago.

We witnessed a violent transition of power in the United States and a failure on the part of the defeated presidential candidate to recognize the results of a free and fair election.

We witnessed the return of the Taliban to power.

In the streets of Ottawa and at our border crossings in Windsor Ontario and Coutts Alberta, we became acquainted with a new type of protest movement, one that confounded disagreement on policy with hatred for institutions and elected officials, one that found strength and capacity in crowdfunding, cryptocurrencies and foreign donations, and one that was embedded with radical right-wing elements who brought weapons into the mix.

Et maintenant, en Ukraine. Une démocratie a été gratuitement attaquée par une tyrannie voisine. Des crimes de guerres et des crimes contre l’humanité sont en cour. Là aussi de nombreuses familles sont endeuillies.

There is so much to think through at this conference. We have no want of topics to analyze and debates to have on solutions forward.

In my view, the threats we face today are the product of something as old as time and more deeply rooted than we admit. It was Pericles’s battle, it was Jefferson’s battle, it is President Zelensky’s battle, it is our battle. The fight between tyrants and peoples. Autocracy and democracy.

It is being waged through meticulous disinformation campaigns that exploit our greatest strength – free speech – and manipulates us towards doubt, enmity, and the natural tribalism of human nature that binds people together into belief systems, even when contrary to reason.

It is a war on two concepts: freedom, and democracy. It attempts to blur us into thinking that the only democracy worth defending is the one in which your party wins, and the only freedom worth defending is your own, even if that means taking away the freedoms of your co-citizens.

The only way to fight back is to elevate the discourse and elevate ourselves together out of this divisive trap.

Freedom was never construed as an unbounded abstraction that people can claim when they do bad things. Freedoms in our form of government were always counted, limited, and named : freedom to vote, freedom to run for office, freedom to assemble and speak freely, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment or self-incrimination and so forth.

Freedoms don’t exist outside of society or constituted entities. They exist because our forefathers swore to one another that they would mutually recognize each other as having fundamental rights. And that took democracy. Because no tyranny recognizes such human dignity.

La guerre contre ces concepts gagne lorsque nous perdons vue la dignité humaine et nous commençons à nous haïr entre nous.

La démocratie n’inclut pas des slogans comme « lock her up » ou l’utilisation du mot en « F » pour désigner nos élus. Elle n’inclut pas ces mots car la démocratie est bâti sur la fraternité et la reconnaissance mutuelle de l’égalité entre citoyens.

Cela veut dire que nous respectons le droit des autres à avoir des points de vue opposés aux nôtres, et nos avons la noblesse de se pencher lorsque nous perdons une élection, afin de sauvegarder l’idée même d’une élection.

The only way to fight back in the war on concepts is through knowledge and education.

But let’s be clear: Education is not merely what happens in school.

It is what happens in public discourse.

Politicians, business leaders and academics – EVERYONE HERE – we all have a role to play. A true leader must take their role as an “influencer” seriously. A true leader is first and foremost an educator. Instead of lowering the quality of discourse in order to please our audiences, we need to raise ourselves and our audience towards a higher outlook. And this higher outlook in a society is the ability to understand privilege as undetached from duty, to understand freedom as something that is mutual rather than individual, and perhaps most importantly, that democracy and its many perks can never be taken for granted, it is hard won.

We tend to forget that in Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, over the course of nearly 500 years during which it dominated the Mediterranean, democracy only thrived for a few decades, and among only the fraction of city states who formed the Delian League.

Throughout that time, democracy faced many foes from the Persians to the Spartans. Its survival as a concept was never certain. And when democracy was lost, it disappeared from the face of the earth for over 2000 years.

Democracy then was built by citizen armies. And that still holds true today. Military values were and are today the root of the democratic ethos: service to the nation:

truth, duty, valour

liberté, égalité, fraternité.

That’s why we need a strong CAF. We need a CAF whose purpose and culture is a model for all citizens. We need a CAF that engages and attracts the best and the brightest among Canada’s youth, because its actions tell a story about what it truly means to protect freedom and democracy.

From the expansionist encroachments of revisionist authoritarianism

From the rise of extremism at home

And to build and sustain government by and for the people even though threats to it are subject to rise rapidly, given the destabilizing effects of climate change.

The CDA and events like the Ottawa Conference only exist because we live in a country that allows public deliberation and independence of thought. In exchange for this privilege, the CDA community has a duty to create a safe space where ideas can be shared and challenged, elevate the quality of public discourse on matters of security & defence, and provide opportunities for the next generation to engage in it. That’s why we have 400 students taking part in the event online and in person – that’s more than at any time in our 90-year history.

So let me end by saying thank you, thank you all for taking part in these public deliberations. Thank you for being part of the CDA Institute Community. Do you see what I just did there?

I just added a fourth word that means a gathering of people: Community.

Everyone here. You are the CDA Institute community. And you are all most important to everything that we do.

Let me now hand it over to the President of the Conference of Defence Associations, and Chair of the CDA Institute, Lieutenant General Guy Thibault.


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