To some, recreation means a hockey game or a hike in the woods, or maybe quaffing a few ales. In Northumberland County, there are several thousand people who relish pondering the world’s bigger questions, so they buy tickets to Northumberland Learning Connection (NLC) events. They come to Cobourg and Port Hope to listen to people in the know: people who tell them how the tundra feels under their feet in Canada’s Arctic; what it was like to be a child at school in Beijing; what makes Vladimir Putin tick; or why Newfoundland is the fount of comedy in this country.
For six weeks every spring and fall, NLC presents speakers, puts together panels, interviews and creates “experiences” – a Chinese orchestra, a trip around the County’s stone walls – all addressing a theme. This multi-faceted approach, coming at a subject from a dozen different angles, has been the key to NLC’s success. The series planned for the spring of 2023 will swirl around the differences between the brain – and the search for scientific answers about how we think – and the mind – that much-harder-to-define repository of morality and creativity.
NLC began with a small group in the Northumberland Hills who had a desire to better understand their world (the program committee has always included community members). Speakers were drawn initially from the universities in Montreal, Ottawa or Southern Ontario. Now the scope is more than just academics. For the Newfoundland series, a Newfoundland fiddler, a newspaper editor from St. John’s, and an expert on fish were flown in (how could you talk about Newfoundland without knowing the taste of salt air?).
There are some speakers’ series that book whoever is on the circuit. That’s never been good enough for NLC, which has always built their series around an idea. Before Covid swelled the audiences to almost 200, a good turnout 10 years ago was considered 50 people on a Thursday night or 15 on a Friday morning. And when NLC began to include community pop-up events featuring one-off speakers connected with a current issue, success grew. The CBC’s Michael Enright came to town in 2016 to talk about the US election, and there was a near riot when people had to be turned away at the door (Enright predicted that Donald Trump would lose and later apologized on national radio for getting it wrong). This past summer more than two hundred people came to hear Canadian-American political pundit David Frum.
Academics, for the most part, do not charge big fees, and many journalists are ethically bound not to charge at all. Nonetheless, nothing ever happens for free. The board has raised money and called in personal favours to entice speakers; audiences too have been generous with donations, because NLC has a good reputation. Often as not, regulars are greeted by first name, pomposity is banned, and it’s always about more than information. Speakers go back home with memories of the hospitality and the curious audiences. And locally, these “learned” evenings have found their way into the community’s conversation.