Opening Speech of 2017 Halifax International Security Forum - Halifax
Opening Speech of 2017 Halifax International Security Forum
November 18, 2017

Opening Speech of 2017 Halifax International Security Forum
Peter Van Praagh, President
Halifax, Nova Scotia
17 November 2017
*Check Against Delivery*

Your excellencies, Ministers, Members of Parliament, Members of the Congressional Delegation, Distinguished Officers, Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues, and friends.

On behalf of everybody who has worked to put this gathering together for you, welcome to Halifax.

Well.  What a year it was.


Anniversaries are not always a helpful way to look at the world.  But using a hundred years as a marker, when no one in this room was yet alive, can indeed serve as a measure of what we’ve learned and how far we’ve come.

Especially when that marker is the year 1917.

For many people in Canada the fact that the NHL, the National Hockey League, was created in 1917 cannot go unmentioned.

If only the joys and the rivalries of sport were the only things that occupied minds in 1917.

But when we think of the sheer magnitude of what was going on in the world just one century ago, we are inevitably drawn to darker, more vexing issues — issues that speak to the concerns that bring us to this gatherings such as this one.

As World War 1 continued to rage, this very city—Halifax— was all but destroyed.

On December 6, 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with ammunition and explosives and headed back to France collided with the SS Imo, a Norwegian vessel in the Narrows, the strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin.

For the sake of reference, this hotel, and all of downtown Halifax, is built along the Narrows.

More than 2,000 people were killed by the explosion and 9,000 more were injured.  Indeed, the blast was the largest man-made explosion in human history prior to the nuclear age.

Nearly all structures within a half-mile radius were obliterated.

A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the community of Mi’kmaq — First Nations people who had lived in the Tufts Cove area for generations.

Relief efforts began almost immediately, and hospitals quickly became full. Rescue trains began arriving from across eastern Canada and the north-eastern United States.  The bonds built between Atlantic Canada and New England as a result of the Halifax explosion remain real and very strong to this day.

Canada had been fighting at enormous cost in Europe for more than three years when that tragedy struck.

But it was the Halifax Explosion that in many ways brought home to North America the reality of the War in Europe.

But 1917 was also the year that brought the United States into the war, ensuring its outcome.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution gave emerging liberal democratic capitalism its first great rival system in the 20th century.

In 1917, the same year that a young David Ben Gurion arrived in Nova Scotia to train with a British battalion that would eventually make its way to the Holy Land, the Balfour Declaration that would set in motion seismic changes in The Middle East was issued 100 years ago this month.

And women’s suffrage movements were on the march to give democracy real and complete meaning to the 50 percent of our populations that had not by then even achieved formal equality.

I could go on.  A lot can happen in a hundred years.

And it is not just that there remains more to do to bring peace and justice to this world.

Looking back from the ‘somewhat, yet not quite accessible’ 100 years helps us understand that doubt, and struggle and injustice, just like democracy, reconciliation, and peace, are never quite complete.

Who wins and what prevails are determined by what we do and by the standards and values that we choose to adopt; That we choose to stand up for; That we choose to fight for.

That is why at Halifax– unique among major global conferences—we ask ourselves what is it that we aim to secure?

Do we know?  Are we sure?

This year we ask:  Peace? Prosperity? Principle?  Securing What Purpose?

Identifying our common purpose as democracies is no small feat.  And yet, through discussion, through better understanding, and through some compromise, we must aim to do so.

Today, over three hundred participants have travelled from over 80 countries to join a select group of fellow democratic thinkers to have a real conversation about international security and the challenges facing our nations now and into the future.

In a moment, you will hear from the Hon. Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s Minister of National Defence and your host for the weekend.

But quickly, I do want to explain how it works here at Halifax International Security Forum.

You will find that the agenda is most importantly, relevant.  And I want to thank our Agenda Working Group who worked with me during the summer to ensure all major issues were addressed.

In this program, you will find short opinion essays by distinguished authors—many of whom join us this weekend.  They set the stage for the plenary panels.  They are meant to start the conversation and without exception, they are excellent.  Please take time to read them.

Bill McCaffrey, founder of Calgary-based MEG Energy, founded the Halifax Canada Club 7 years ago to ensure that industry’s ideas for international security are included in the conversations here at Halifax.  Thank you.

Thank you also Nancy Southern, CEO of ATCO for your unwavering support, Mr. Ahmet Çalik, Chairman of Istanbul, Turkey-based Calik Holding and Mr. Savas Erdem, CEO of Ankara, Turkey-based OYAK.

And welcome Mr. Marc Allen, President of Boeing International, our newest member of the Halifax Canada Club.  Welcome Marc.

Together, the Halifax Canada Club ensures that the work we do here this weekend, and throughout the year, will continue.  Bill, Nancy, Ahmet, Savas, and Marc, and senior members of their teams will be identified this weekend by their gold lobster lapel pin:  when you have a chance, please thank them for their very generous support.

Thank you also to NATO and a special welcome to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.  NATO has supported the Forum since the beginning and it is altogether appropriate that we thank NATO this evening with our Builders Award.

Thank you Foreign Affairs Magazine, and new this year, Foreign Policy Magazine, our media partners.

Thank you to CAE, Gartner, CCC, L3 Technologies, Ipsos and DLA Piper.

I want to thank Joe Hall, our Vice President, and I want to thank members of our board of directors for their leadership and for being with us this weekend — Jonathan Weisstub, Jonathan Tepperman, David Kramer, and general counsel Dean Fealk.  They are strong leaders and my true partners in this endeavor.

Thank you to the Government of Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, ACOA, for your enthusiastic support. Thank you Minister Brison for your support.

Specifically, I thank Minister Sajjan for your leadership and your committment to what we do now and into the future.

General Vance, Chief of Defence Staff, thank you for your confidence in us, too.  For everyone’s situational awareness, you need to know that I’ve given my word to General Vance that the Forum will run on time this weekend. That means:  on time.  I intend to keep my word General.

Of course, none of this would be possible without you, our participants.  Thank you for making the trip.

Senator Shaheen, a special thank you for your commitment.  For those of you, like Senator Shaheen, who have been here before, you already know that we take pride in creating an atmosphere that provokes serious conversation and debate.  I encourage you to help your colleagues and new friends who are here for the first time in any way you can.

And there are some special people here this weekend for the first time: President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo,  Chief Executive Abdullah of Afghanistan, and Nobel Laureate Tawakkal Karman among them.

Thank you.

And now a quick word on behalf of our communications team:

Please feel free, while keeping your phones on silent, to use social media to convey your thoughts throughout our on-the-record sessions.  Our hashtag is #HISF2017.

And please don’t mind that I plug our new podcast, “Pete and Steve’s the World”, out now and available on our website, iTunes, and of course Google Play.  It’s insightful.  It’s irreverent.  And it’s funny.  And your teenage children will love it.

The Halifax Explosion is one example of many in recent history that reminds Canadians and Americans alike that their continent is not immune to the dangers caused by foreign conflicts.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I thank the city of Halifax and the people of Halifax for hosting all of us this weekend.

In fact, the true secret to our success is this gorgeous venue and the warmth it provides.  I will just mention that we have many local volunteers from the community:  they are identified by their white lanyards and I know are looking forward to helping you.

Foreign Policy and Security Policy is no different than all public policy.  It is about people.

Maintaining people’s trust and people’s confidence is fundamental and can never be taken for granted.

Democratic leaders understand this.  It is people who lend their leaders their power.  But that power, from the people, is only on loan.

As China challenges, as Russia interferes, as North Korea threatens, and as international terrorism continues—all at a time that the world adapts to a new style of American leadership, the conversations held this weekend will, indeed, have some bearing on how future generations—100 years from now—judge how we identified and secured our common purpose.


For more information, please contact:

Robin MacLachlan, Communications Manager, Halifax International Security Forum – (613) 294-6128

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