Feature / Summer 2003
Fighting Words

Hart House debating has prepared generations of U of T students for the rigours of academe, politics, and the law. More important, it reassures anxious frosh that it’s cool to be smart


The yellow RCMP evidence sticker remains on the oak speaker’s mace in the Hart House Debates Room, now a firm part of campus lore. Each year, a new crop of student speakers learn from the story of the ceremonial mallet just how tough stepping into the ring of U of T debating can get.

On the evening of November 14, 1985, an angry protestor grabbed the 20-pound mace during a debate and hurled it at the honorary speaker, South African Ambassador Glenn Babb. Hart House’s then-warden, Richard Alway, bravely threw out his arm to shield the ambassador. But student debaters took the rest of the heat in what turned into a near riot.

The Debates Room was packed with angry demonstrators – many from off-campus – there to protest both the ambassador’s presence and the resolution “that the West should not divest its holdings in South Africa.” After the mace flew, an attempt to relocate the debate to another room turned into a mad dash through Hart House, with student debaters fleeing the angry mob. It mattered not that Brian Burchell (BSc 1987 Scarborough), one of those running in fear, was arguing for divestment. “They were interested in confronting anyone [involved in the debate], and I believe some had knives,” says Burchell, now publisher of a group of community newspapers in Toronto (and incoming president of the U of T Alumni Association). “I escaped by climbing out a window in the south sitting room and running across the roof of Hart House.” The proceedings were suspended – the only known debate in the House’s 81-year history to end without a vote.

The event ignited a campus-wide debate about not only divestment, but free speech. Many chided the debaters both for inviting the controversial guest and for daring to explore all sides of a contentious issue. To this day, though, Burchell upholds the students’ right to invite whom they like and discuss what they wish. “The process of Hart House is that students run things. The warden can’t say, ‘Don’t invite this person because it will cause trouble.’” The debates, he says, “gave my generation an opportunity to meet and challenge leaders of the day on the issues of the day.”

Questioning authority, defying convention, testing the power of the spoken word: these are the tenets of debating at University of Toronto. Each fall, some 400 students venture into the first meeting of the Hart House Debating Club. They are, typically, the “brainers” – intellectually intense, frighteningly articulate. Among them are brash show-offs from high school debating and shy outcasts long ridiculed for their ability to carry an idea farther than a football.

If they can survive the rough-and-tumble of intellectual sparring (which will whittle their number down to 200 by year-end), they will emerge among the best debaters in the world. And that experience will stand them in good stead to take up influential careers, following in the footsteps of such debating alumni as former Justice Horace Krever, former Ontario premier Bob Rae, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis, Ontario health minister Tony Clement, former Ontario attorney general Ian Scott, CBC broadcaster David Halton, and journalists Linda McQuaig and Tom Walkom.

The Hart House Debating Club was previously the U of T Debating Union, brought under the wing of Hart House in 1986 to provide financial stability. With 17 first-place and finalist finishes at the National championships, four North American titles and a double crown win at the Worlds, Hart House ranks as one of the world’s powerhouses in competitive debating.

The Hart House Debating Committee, established in 1922 to stage high-profile public debates, recruits its elected members from seasoned club debaters and campus political leaders. U of T students may find themselves arguing significant issues before honorary guests that include leading newsmakers, prime ministers and foreign dignitaries. In 1957, a young senator named John F. Kennedy argued the proposition that the United States had not failed in its role as a world leader. His side won the debate, but barely.

This year’s committee debates featured U of T provost Shirley Neuman, activist pastor Brent Hawkes and new NDP leader Jack Layton. Debating before such high-profile guests – who always get the last word – is unique, if nerve-wracking, preparation for a career in law, academia or politics. There’s a special intimacy to those events, says health minister Clement (BA 1983 UC, LLB 1986), who debated before two prime ministers (won one, lost one). “There were no barriers between students and politicians. On one level it was terrifying, and on another level it really forced you to marshal your arguments and turn on a dime to meet a new rhetorical threat, which prepares one well for the slings and arrows later.”

U of T’s debating tradition extends back to the 1830s, when various student societies held mock parliaments and daily lunchtime debates. Today, smaller and arguably friendlier debating clubs still exist – notably at Victoria, St. Michael’s,

Trinity, University College and University of Toronto at Mississauga – offering debaters numerous venues to practise their art. That supportive community makes a difference. Andrew Taylor (MA 1981, PhD 1987), who debated for Queen’s as an undergraduate, faced many a U of T debater and found them a tight-knit, “snooty and eccentric” group. When he came to U of T, he discovered why. “At Queen’s, so few of us were debating that we did not constitute a society. At U of T, with all the colleges, it was large enough that you had a society with insiders and outsiders and famed speakers.” Taylor, now a medieval studies professor at the University of Ottawa, became one of those elite debaters. He scored a double win for Hart House at the world championship in 1981, where he was named best speaker and part of the best team, with partner Steve Coughlan (MA 1980, PhD 1985), who now teaches law at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

The college societies also contribute much to what is known as the Hart House style in competition, which is “very tight, aggressive logic combined with a real performance flair,” according to John Duffy (BA 1986 Trinity), who competed in three world tourneys. This style combines the best of two great debating traditions: American analysis and British wit. Debaters hone their showmanship at “show” debates hosted by the colleges, notably Trinity. “These are as much beer-drinking comedy fests organized around the format of a debate,” says Duffy, now a public affairs consultant who recently penned the best-selling book Fights of Our Lives: Great Canadian Elections. “Here, wit was everything and logic meant nothing. If you could perform in front of 100 easily distracted students who were non-debaters, you were in good shape to go to another country and turn on a debating audience.” Duffy ought to know; he won best speaker at the 1983 Nationals and 1984 Worlds.

Inevitably, serious debaters at U of T migrate to Hart House and intercollegiate competition. The Debates Room at Hart House is a hard stage to resist. With seating for 250, it has a soaring oak-panelled ceiling, a viewing gallery and a speaker’s chair akin to the one in the House of Commons. Here, novices learn how to build an argument and defend it – or tear one to pieces. For the first month of the school year, the club focuses on training newcomers. “How to serve first-year students is always a big issue at the club,” says novice debater Anne Sealey, a second-year history student who won best speaker at this year’s Central Canadian Novice Championships. Although the club has an alumni chair – currently Peter Neilson (LLB 1978), a former debater who now practises law in Toronto – he quickly points out he’s not a coach. “They don’t listen to what I tell them,” laughs Neilson. “So I’m more of a mentor, adviser and cheerleader.” The seniors groom the frosh in weekly practice rounds, seminars, an in-house Pro-Am tournament that pairs novices with veterans, and an all-day seminar and practice tournament – all before unleashing them on the cutthroat competitive circuit.

If a student is new to debating, the learning curve is steep. Debaters are schooled in three parliamentary styles: British, American and Canadian. Each varies in length and number of teams involved in any one debate, but fundamental to each is a government team of two (prime minister and member of the crown) pitted against an opposition team of two (leader and member of the opposition). About 15 minutes before a competition, teams are informed if they are to be government or opposition. The government side is then handed a resolution – occasionally humorous, sometimes serious, and often culled from a pop song (All You Need Is Love), a popular quotation (“You can’t stand in the same river twice”) or a George W. Bush quip (“The future is tomorrow”).

The pressure is on the opposition, who learn about the case only when the debate starts. They must then simultaneously listen to the government build its case while they develop a cogent opposing argument. “It teaches you to organize your thoughts very quickly,” deadpans Sealey.

Debaters also have to master arcane traditions. At public debates and in final rounds, students don academic robes. In debates settled by an audience, the spectators cast their votes by exiting through either a “nay” door or an “aye” door. Perhaps the oddest custom is the “point of information”: a debater interrupts a speaker to ask a question by placing her right hand behind her neck (ostensibly, to hold on a wig) and extending her left hand to signal the question (and to show that she is unarmed).

Of course, the most important ritual involves going out for pizza and beer after practice. Hanging out together builds camaraderie and confidence; success begets success. “You arrive at U of T and you’re exposed to a high level of talent, like an Andrew Taylor; you simply watch and learn,” says Duffy. “It’s what a great public university is all about…. Students learn through interaction with their peers how to be the best in the world at something.” Former Justice Krever (BA 1951 UC, LLB 1954) concurs. “You saw people who started to debate at university and you could watch their progress, see their skill developing. Some became superb speakers before your very eyes.”

With the aid of this unique training environment, Hart House novices dominated this year’s Central Canadian championship. Francis Chung and Joanna Langille won top spot in the tournament at the University of Guelph, while Anne Sealey and Yaser Habeeb were finalists.

But the kid gloves come off when the intercollegiate debaters get down to their own training. Twice a week they run practice debates to prepare for 10 to 12 tournaments a year. On the club’s limited budget of $22,000 (funded mainly through student fees), only a few teams can go to a tournament. So the teams slug it out in high-stakes qualifiers at Hart House.

Last year the club held three qualifying rounds to select the five teams that would go to the Nationals at McGill University in Montreal, and five rounds to pick the two teams that would go to the Worlds in South Africa. “These qualifying rounds can be the most vicious, competitive tournaments,” says longtime debater Rory McKeown (BA 2002 UC). He recalls being knocked out early in his career by one below-the-belt tactic: the tight argument. That’s when the government makes such a narrow case that it leaves the opposition nothing to argue with. “There are ways you can play fast and loose with the rules,” says former debater Duffy, “but there’s tremendous peer pressure not to.”

More often, teams go for the jugular by jumping on weak reasoning, exposing logical lapses or exploiting contradictions between team members. With the additional pressure of heckling from the floor, intimidation plays a big part in debating culture. “Debaters are very intense, competitive people,” says Duffy. “You’re there to win. You’re using logic as a weapon…. You try to make someone feel that they don’t know what they’re talking about or aren’t thinking clearly.”

It’s a tough culture to break into, but newcomers are stepping up – and winning respect. “The stereotype used to be four WASP guys who all debated against each other in private school, but now there’s more diversity and far more balance between genders,” says McKeown. One pioneer was Diane Brady (BA 1988 Victoria), who viewed debating as a challenge to overcome. “I was always a bit nervous about public speaking and thought this would be a good counter-phobic thing to do,” says Brady, now a writer at BusinessWeek magazine in New York. “Debating at that time was full of a lot of smart guys who liked to show off how smart they were.”

Brady quickly discovered she shared the thrill of a knock-out argument. “Debating is partly about being smarter, having more facts, being more persuasive, being funny and able to rip down an argument. You’re arguing sometimes in front of a very rowdy crowd. Being able to work an audience was a skill a lot of these guys had.” And clearly a talent Brady honed; she won the Nationals in 1988. “She was less overtly aggressive,” notes Duffy, “but she had a way of dispatching us with a smile. She tripped us up a lot.” Adds Brady: “I found it to be a useful skill in life.”

A side-effect of dominating the debating world means that competitive teams from Hart House often find themselves facing off against each other for intercollegiate championships. Hart House’s Daniel Bach and Michael Meeuwis faced colleagues Rory McKeown and Aaron Rousseau at both the 2002 Nationals and North Americans. Drawing the government side at the Nationals, Bach and Meeuwis ran a time-place debate, in which the location and time of the debate are specifically set out; in this case, Israel, 1967.

Bach and Meeuwis argued that Israel should acquire no new land and relinquish lands recently won, as it was not in Israel’s interests to have a large, potentially hostile Arab population within its borders. McKeown and Rousseau countered by saying that Israel, as a liberal democracy, had the opportunity to extend increased rights to Arabs and to prove it was not fundamentally hostile to the Muslim world. McKeown and Rousseau prevailed, winning both the Nationals and the North Americans.

But competing in international competitions, from Scotland to South Africa or Australia, is not always verbal warfare. Tournaments include numerous mixers, and debaters come home with a network of friends from around the world. “There’s a great appeal in meeting people from so far away,” says McKeown, who is pursuing his PhD in English. “You work harder to stay in touch.”

Amid the formal robes, archaic traditions and contrived resolutions, debating might look like a playground for argumentative students with too much free time. Yet U of T debating is rooted in concern for the real world, and clearly attracts participants with sincere interest in social problems and international affairs. Long months of training and acute competition – learning to think on your feet or even flee an angry mob – prepare debaters to tackle real issues in the future. “There are a lot of students debating who are interested in the world beyond the university,” says McKeown. “They may not necessarily be taking action, but they’re getting ready to be people who will take action – and I find that reassuring.”

Something to Talk About
Highs and lows from 50 years of U of T debating

The Largest Debate: 1950
When Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was the honorary speaker at a U of T debate, so many people clamoured to attend that the debate was moved to the Great Hall at Hart House. Popular as he was, St. Laurent failed to persuade the audience to vote in his favour. Edward Eberle (BA 1950 St. Michael’s), who argued for St. Laurent’s losing side, has a hunch why: “There was only one door you could exit, sowhen it came to record the vote, they asked the yes side to go into the kitchen [of Hart House] and the no side to exit the Great Hall. After, I learned from my frat brothers that quite a number were anxious to get to the King Cole Room [a popular watering hole at the Park Plaza Hotel] before it closed. They went out the no side so they could leave.”

The JFK Debate: 1957
This debate on America’s role as a world power was famous for more than the appearance of John F. Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts, as honorary speaker. The debate provoked a massive protest from women, barred from attending by Hart House’s male-only membership rule. Though JFK agreed to speak separately to the women the next morning at St. Michael’s College, his sympathies were clear. During the debate he praised Hart House’s policy, saying, “It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

The Gate-Crash Debate: 1967

As protests against racial discrimination exploded south of the border, five female U of T students brought the fight over gender discrimination home by holding a sit-in at a debate featuring honorary speaker George Ignatieff, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. The co-eds crashed the men-only event, making headlines in the Toronto papers. Student debaters Bob Rae (BA 1969 UC) and Michael Ignatieff (BA 1969 Trinity), George’s son, veered off the foreign affairs topic long enough to call for an end to gender discrimination at Hart House. But that would take another five years to accomplish.

Silliest Debate: 1978
The resolution: Only a fool would go to university.
The vote: a tie.

The Longest Debate: November, 1988
Some 300 students debated the resolution “There is nothing not worth talking about” for 388 hours and 15 minutes. They set a record for the longest debate ever, but a broken tape ruined the evidence before it could be sent to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Most Romantic Debate: 1987

Judy Bradt (BA 1982 St. Michael’s), who debated at Hart House for four years, returned to judge at the Hart House Invitational. During the final round, two-time U.S. National Champion J.J. Gertler, whom she had met at the Worlds five years earlier, rose from the floor. On the pretence of disputing the resolution, he offered “a different proposal.” Bowing on one knee, he presented Bradt with an engagement ring. They were married five months later in the Hart House Debates Room.

Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) is a freelance writer in Toronto.


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