The Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee recently hosted an event on the future of Canadian mental health policy. Guest speakers included Dr. Catherine Zahn, the president of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and Louise Bradley, the president of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Two days later, Her Honour, the Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, shared this on her Facebook page:

The event’s success and its cast of renowned speakers and attendees were a result of thoughtful planning by the Committee’s mostly student members. In fact, the Committee has a history of wooing leaders of all stripes for a wealth of sold-out events since its foundation in 1919.

In recent years, the Committee has been trying to engage new audiences. That’s why many of its latest events focus not on the traditional topics of economics and foreign policy, but on the arts, technology, healthcare, social policy, and environment, says Aceel Hawa, the Committee’s president and a third-year student at Trinity College who is pursuing a degree in Psychology, Biology, and French.

“We knew we wanted to host vital conversations about mental health, refugee policy, and Indigenous reconciliation this year, and so we set out early to invite policymakers, activists, and practitioners to [participate as speakers,]” says Aceel.

It’s not the only change; while formal debating events will continue to take place, the current lineup also includes panel discussions and guest lectures.

The strategy is paying off. A recent event featuring Dennis Edney, lawyer for Omar Khadr, quickly sold out, as did another one, provocatively called “Trudeau at the Halfway Mark: Has our PM Been a Success?” An increasing number of students and community members are realizing that at Hart House, they get a chance to discuss the pressing issues of the day with the people who are at the centre of the issues.

Upcoming events include a first-hand account of life as an Ontario Premier, when the Committee hosts a fireside chat with Kathleen Wynne on March 1, and a talk with litigator Marie Henein on February 14 about how women are treated by the law and in the field of law — an event so popular it sold out within 30 minutes of its announcement.

“In my [three years] with the committee, I have learned what makes an event work well and how to ensure students feel engaged and interested in the speakers and topics. It has been especially rewarding to translate knowledge into consistently strong and interesting programming, with high turn out,” says Aceel.

Hear, hear.