In 1985, a group of York University students won a Gold Medal Team award at Harvard National Model United Nations. On their flight back to Toronto, an ambitious one among them said to his faculty adviser, “we should have something like this in Canada.” The first university-level model UN conference in Canada was born.
Today, Kevin Talbot, the founder of North American Model United Nations, is a Managing Partner of Relay Ventures, an investment company that focuses on mobile companies. Initially surprised that his creation 30 years ago is still going strong, Talbot very gladly agreed to a phone interview with the current Secretary General, Larysa Workewych.
“My faculty adviser said to me, ‘why don’t you do it?' And that’s how it started,” said Talbot. The conference began as a joint venture between the two departments of political science at York University and University of Toronto.
“We went out and raised donations of cash and in-kind. We had supports from one of the big consulting firms and law firms. HP shipped in computers and Xerox sent over two photocopiers. We went out and basically created everything from scratch. Air Canada donated airfares because we had a team from London School of Economics so they basically subsidized their flights,” said Talbot.
Even though it was NAMUN's first year, 500 delegates attended the conference in 1986.
Every school in Canada participated, together with LSE and a few U.S. schools. Without 21st century communication technologies, the team used more “old-school” methods.
“We mailed letters to every political science department in the country. We phoned them," Talbot said. "We went out to faculties and we encouraged them to create a course and some people came as part of that course.”
The three-day conference was held at a two-storey Four Seasons hotel at Leslie Street and Eglinton Avenue. The delegates arrived on Friday, debated on Saturday, and the conference concludedon Sunday. The keynote speaker was the Canadian Ambassador to UN at the time, Stephen Lewis. A gala dinner was held on Saturday night and delegates were encouraged to wear the dress of the country they represented. Chancellor of U of T George Ignatieff and Chancellor of York U John Tuzo Wilson both sat at head table.
To “model” the real United Nations, Talbot and his friends decided to run a midnight crisis for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) committee. They found footage of hijacked airplane from TV archive and created a fake 11 p.m. news segment.
“It didn’t occur to any of us that we have made it so authentic that the hotel staff that were sitting in the rooms and pouring the water watched the TV…and we had a total meltdown at the switchboard of the hotel. They thought it was real. We got into a little bit of trouble for that.”
Why call it “North American” model UN?
“One of my philosophies in life is that you’ve got to look bigger. The world is your market. When we named NAMUN, we didn’t want to call it the Canadian United Nations because that would be too limiting," Talbot said. "We wanted to attract schools from the U.S., so let’s think bigger."