As the Centre For International Governance Innovation in Waterloo celebrates its fifth anniversary, a group of its leading experts is examining the big issues facing the world for Record readers. Today, executive director John English tells how the centre began.

In the summer of 2001, a month before the twin towers fell in New York, Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research In Motion, decided that the world as we knew it was at a tipping point.

Although China and India had grown rapidly in the last years of the 20th century, their potential as a force for change in the 21st century was not yet understood.

Such understanding was essential for Canadians if they were to live, compete, and thrive in the new century.

Within a year, Balsillie and his partner, Mike Lazaridis, had donated $30 million, which was matched by the federal government, to establish a think tank based in Waterloo.

A focus group in Balsillie's office chose the name: The Centre for International Governance Innovation, more commonly known as CIGI (pronounced Ceegee). Its purpose, in the words of its mandate, was to support research, foster exchange among experts and leaders in private and public sectors, and provide informed advice to decision-makers.

CIGI's first home for its three employees was the little train station at Caroline and Erb streets. The centre's ambitions rapidly outgrew the train station.

Fortunately, the City of Waterloo was willing to sell the former Seagram Museum to house the think tank and the late Klaus Woerner and Anna Woerner generously donated their splendid home in North Dumfries Township to become a retreat.

The centre currently has over 70 employees and has become the largest Canadian think tank focusing on international affairs.

Its programs range from a network of young economists in China to an international network studying how the current G8 could be expanded to make it more representative.

It has partners on every continent, and its own employees reflect that diversity in the many languages they speak and nationalities they possess.

With the assistance of the government of Ontario, CIGI created IGLOO, an online network that permits international collaboration and co-ordination among scholars, students and others. IGLOO's applications include Governance Village, an online knowledge network where Canadians working in international development can share best practices and collaborate.

PolicyNet is an exciting initiative which links together graduate programs in international public policy and includes such distinguished institutions as the Hertie School in Berlin, Princeton, Peking University, and, of course, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

From the first days of CIGI, a principal goal was the strengthening of capacity in Waterloo to study international governance. CIGI has used its resources to establish chairs in international governance at both universities.

Balsillie's recent donation to CIGI will permit funding of a total of 17 chairs at Laurier and Waterloo. These scholars will join others in the new Balsillie School of International Affairs whose construction will soon commence on the lands directly beside CIGI.

Recently, CIGI has provided leadership in the creation of the Canadian International Council.

During the last federal election, there was only one question dealing with international affairs in the three leaders' debates. The United States, so often criticized for its lack of international interest, devoted one full debate to international topics.

The Americans have the powerful, non-partisan Council of Foreign Relations, but Canada has lacked such a vigorous institution promoting the non-partisan and expert analysis of Canada's role in the world.

In late November, members of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs overwhelmingly voted to merge into the Canadian International Council where they will join other interested groups to promote better understanding of Canada's role in the world.

Balsillie is the founding chair of the organization, which early in 2008 will announce the appointment of 20 fellows to study the major issues facing Canada today.

These council activities will build upon CIGI's study of changes in the international system and give CIGI's work a distinctly Canadian flavour. But let us return to the corner of Caroline and Erb in Waterloo where we began.

The original Seagram Museum paid tribute to a great Canadian business that began on the little stream that ran through Waterloo. Its successor is the product of the tremendous energy that infuses the region today and the direct offshoot of the generosity of Joseph Seagram's high tech successors who know we must look beyond our borders.

Last weekend, CIGI held a conference on reconstruction in West Africa and held a free public lecture-lunch which attracted over 80 people.

This weekend CIGI hosts the major conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines.

The event is open to the public at no cost. On Saturday evening Lloyd Axworthy, the architect of the Ottawa Treaty, will reflect on its impact at a fundraising event whose proceeds will go directly to eliminating landmines.

Those seeking more information should consult the CIGI website to learn how the world's changes are now reflected in Waterloo.

As the Centre For International Governance Innovation in Waterloo celebrates its fifth anniversary, a group of its leading experts is examining the big issues facing the world for Record readers. Today, executive director John English tells how the centre began.

John English is executive director of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.