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The Beginnings of CGPA

John Salvendy, F.C.G.P.A., Toronto, Ontario

From Chronicle Volume 14 (2) Summer 1999

Although the Ontario Group Psychotherapy Association (OGPA), the predecessor of the current Toronto Section, was established in 1966 and blossomed in the 1970's, some of us had the feeling that a more trans-national organization would have been desirable in order to be in touch with our colleagues in other regions and to offer group therapeutic learning opportunities elsewhere as well.

 The impetus to actualize those ideas came from two experiences-one annual, the other one unique:

 A number of senior Canadian group therapists (among     them    Fern    Cramer-Azima, Roy MacKenzie, Bill Powles, Yvonne Shaker, Hassan Azim and myself, as well as the late Julius Guild and Vie Head) often met at the annual conference of AGPA, enjoyed the camaraderie but bemoaned the lack of a similar opportunity back home.

 The unrepeated other influence was the stunningly successful 1976 OGPA conference, the keynote speaker of which was Irving Yalom.              

This conference, which was co-sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto (a frequent partner over the years), attracted over 300 registrants, among them over 60 psychiatric residents, a record to my knowledge in any group meeting since! Even more significantly, it offered the first forum for prominent Canadian group psychotherapists from all over the country to meet and work at the same convention.  In retrospect, 1 had the pleasure to organize that conference, not being aware then of its historic meaning. 1 was able to secure the participation of a dozen of the best known group therapists in Canada.    Most of us know each other from different meetings.     Among those experiential group leaders were Fem Azima, Hassan Azim, Elie Debbane, Harvey Freedman, Julius Guild, Roy MacKenzie, Bill Powles, and Bill Stauble. The enthusiasm and insights generated by that conference gave the final impetus for the group psychotherapy training program of OGPA, which started in 1977.

 True to our Canadian national character, not all present at those meetings were optimistic about the possibility of a separate national organization in Canada. Some friendships have cooled for a few years over this issue. However, the majority were clearly increasingly enthusiastic and from 1978 on, a small group composed of Fern Azima, Roy MacKenzie, Bill Powles, Yvonne Shaker and myself started to plan the outlines for a Canadian Group Psychotherapy Association. Quite a few of us had the advantage of having gathered experience on the boards of other professional organizations. We also had either the implicit or the explicit backing of our institutions.     This was a very important fact at a time when we had no budget beyond our own personal ones. The core group activated its many contacts across the country- over the telephone, in letters, and via personal visits.

 Our initial optimism envisaged an organization with sections literally coast to coast. In one of the many brainstorming sessions, it was Bill Powles who pointed out the enormity of our task by drawing a map of Canada with the cities in which we planned to have group therapy sections. They appeared as small beads, strung far apart along a thing, long line ...

 After a couple of years of strenuous networking, we discovered much about the social, economic and political realities of our country. We became aware of the East-West tensions in our own land, and about the fragmentation and sparse distribution of group therapists in the Maritime region and B.C. We learned about the deep mistrust towards any central authority.   This core organizing group experienced painfully the wariness in Quebec, both along linguistic lines and between the professional disciplines.


From the very beginning, we were trying hard to attract French-Canadian group therapists. We even attempted to make a small step towards partial bilingualism in our organization--however, with very modest success. Financially, bilingualism was impossible to carry out. Furthermore, the number of French-speaking group therapists whom we were able to attract did not justify the expense. The only exception was the Montreal conference in 1982, where COPA got Quebec government assistance for translation of the plenary sessions. For the first several years of the Annual Conference, we had a number of prominent Francophone presenters and attendees. Regrettably, very few of them have partaken in the annual meetings more recently.

 From the start both the CGPA Annual Conference and the local programming often collaborated with academic or other health centers for a number of reasons.    The collaboration has added further professional stature to the conference and usually offered CGPA administrative and financial support and facilities. In Toronto, the organization has been using for over a decade the facilities of St. Michael's Hospital, and prior to that, also those of the Clarke and Hincks Institutes.  We have associated with a number of other prestigious scholarly institutions in the past, such as the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. This academic collaboration is very much a Canadian hallmark and it reflects the relatively high number of group therapists in teaching institutions.

 The initial centres across the country where group therapy activities related to CGPA were initiated, were Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. However, formal branches evolved for the time being only in Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and later in Red Deer. The CGPA Board has decided since its inception to try and alternate the annual conference sites geographically between the West and the East.

 After the groundwork had been laid over the previous couple of years, the founding conference of CGPA took place in October 1980, in Banff. While the program was modest and focused primarily on experiential aspects, the mood was exuberant and all the participants were aware of the historic significance of the event.      The good fellowship and relaxed atmosphere became in subsequent years a trademark and a focal point of attraction to many participants. We came to the annual meeting not only to hear about new techniques and developments but also to meet old friends and new ones from all over the country.

The early struggles of CGPA were partially characterized by attempts to define our identities and boundaries. Some members of OGPA were reluctant to "submit" to the larger but newer national organization.

 As OGPA was an affiliate society of AGPA it took many lively discussions to demarcate our future friendly by informal relationships with it. The early years were also illustrative of the East (established group programs) versus West (upcoming, dynamic enthusiasm) rivalry, which contributed in no small way to the rapid development of CGPA as a national organization. Looking back at our modest beginnings we can take pride at the tremendous accomplishments of CGPA and its members over the past two decades. CGPA is a major force nationally in the field of group psychotherapy and an influential and respected member of the international group psychotherapy community.

Contributions to the Chronicle are always welcome and may be sent to:

Colleen Eggertson
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