UVic’s longest running Centre celebrates 30 years of bridging the Pacific

Inaugural CAPI Director and Chair in Economic Relations with China Ralph Heunemann inside the new CAPI offices (UVic Archives / 9901886100).

For nearly two years leading up to a culminating federal election in the fall of 1988, Canadians were embroiled in a national debate about whether to ratify free trade with the US1 in “the biggest trade agreement ever concluded between two countries”2,3. During the same period, however, Canada had “discovered” Asia and “economic recalculation of the national interest” resulted in official adoption of the Asia-Pacific as “the focus of its newest aspirations on the world stage”4. Owing to its geographical position, British Columbia became the main beneficiary of federal funds allocated towards cultivating connections across the Pacific. At the University of Victoria (UVic), situated in the provincial capital on the very edge of the continent – a smidgen closer to Tokyo than to London - plans materialized to foster a “Centre of Specialization in Pacific Asia trade relations and international commercial law”5 around a core of three permanent research chairs (Economic Relations with China, Economic Relations with Japan, and Asia-Pacific Legal Relations). 

Early CAPI documentation

pdf documents:
CAPI's approval as a UVic Centre at the Board of Governors meeting, April 17, 1989
CAPI's first newsletter, March 11, 1988

An article about CAPI in UVic's Torch magazine, spring 1988


The decision on a name should be taken with some care, since the name establishes an image that will remain with the Centre for many years. A pronounceable acronym is also of some value. Familiar terms like “studies” or “research” should be avoided as too narrow or academic-sounding. Neither the term “Asia” nor the term “Pacific,” by itself, describes the region intended, while the term “Pacific Rim” seems more trendy than helpful. Therefore, we suggest that the Centre might be named “The Centre for Asian and Pacific Initiatives” or “The Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives.” Either way, the inevitable acronym would probably be CAPI.

- from an early internal planning document

UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) was officially opened at the Begbie (now Murray and Anne Fraser) Building on April 15th, 19886. Chinese-Canadian philanthropist David Lam was honoured at the ceremony in recognition of the contribution from the David and Dorothy Lam Endowment. A few months after CAPI’s opening, Dr. Lam became BC’s 25th Lieutenant Governor, the first person of Asian ancestry to serve as a vice-regal in Canada7. Less than two weeks later still, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney - who had put forward Lam for appointment, and who was on the cusp of his a second mandate in the “free trade” election referred to in the opening to this article - delivered a formal apology to Japanese Canadians who had been interned in camps in British Columbia’s interior during World War II. 

On the eve of the 1988 federal election, CAPI hosted a panel discussion on Asia-Pacific trade and security as part of the Williamsburg Conference, which convened a distinguished group of international Asia-Pacific experts from government, industry, academia, and policy groups at Dunsmuir Lodge, UVic’s former holding on the Saanich Peninsula8. As CAPI’s inaugural Director and China Chair Ralph Huenemann remarked about the conference participants at the time: "The kinds of people who are involved are on the firing line; they don't usually have much time for reflection"9. The Lams, newly settled in their official residence on Rockland Avenue, hosted the participants for dinner.

On a crisp November night thirty years later, 140 of CAPI’s closest friends gathered at the Inn at Laurel Point on Victoria’s Inner Harbour (photo below) for some reflection and dinner of their own in celebration of the Centre’s three decades of “bridging the Pacific.” The evening’s keynote was delivered by internationally renowned, Indo-American author Amitav Ghosh (e.g., the Ibis trilogy), known for historical narratives that tend to be “transnational in sweep, moving restlessly across countries, continents and oceans”10.

CAPI 30th anniversary dinner

It is a fitting description for CAPI also, which has established itself as one of the university’s “crown jewels”11 and a vital link to the Asia Pacific region through a vast array of activities both at home and abroad. From facilitating justice system capacity-building in Cambodia and Vietnam, creating the early professional literature on ocean law in Southeast Asia and supporting research into waste-pickers in Bangladesh, labour migration in Indonesia, and coral reef recovery off Christmas Island, to organizing international conferences on Chinese politics and hosting Thai royalty, “CAPI spells ‘initiatives’ in real terms”12. As the campus “clearing house” for all matters Asia-Pacific, one of CAPI’s primary domestic roles has been to act as an extra-departmental resource for the Asia-oriented faculty, students, and staff on campus who are otherwise isolated in their home units with respect to their geographical concentration.

[CAPI] formed a central focus around which Asian interests at UVic could coalesce, intermingle and benefit and learn from each other. Seldom was an idea pitched that included an Asian element that did not receive some support from the CAPI Director of the time. However the scope of CAPI was far from parochial . . . It hosted conferences, published books, participated in grant applications and was recognised as a key player on both sides of the Pacific in a wide range of Asian initiatives. 

Phil Dearden, UVic Geography’s “hot shot prof"13 (personal correspondence, August 2018). Dearden has been a dedicated “Asianist” and CAPI collaborator since the Centre’s early days.

On November 5th, 1999, UVic - represented by Chancellor Norma Mickelson, President David Strong, and Board of Governors Chair Brian Lamb - conferred the Degree of Honorary Doctor of Science upon His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej of Thailand at Chitralada Royal Villa in Bangkok "for his service to the Thai people and his standing in the wider global community as a Head of State respected for his integrity, his appreciation of education and his record of service in the public interest."
Here, CAPI Director Bill Neilson shakes the hand of the King. Also in attendance were long-time CAPI-Thai liaison Jittiya Dearden and CAPI Research Associate Phil Dearden (UVic Geography), Khun Anand Panyarachun (another UVic honourary degree recipient, for whom CAPI's Anand scholarship is named), and CAPI Research Associate and prominent Thai businessman Jingjai Hanchanlash. The programme included a roundtable on “Environmental Protection and Rural Development in Thailand." The King died in 2016 at age 88, having reigned for seventy years. His death was marked by a year of mourning in Thailand.

Photo gallery: CAPI at home and abroad

This year also marks the fifteenth anniversary of CAPI’s flagship internship program, which has sent 171 Canadian post-secondary students on life-changing placements with 51 different non-governmental organizations across the Asia-Pacific for a cumulative total of 85 years. CAPI’s lower-profile professional training programs have brought hundreds of Chinese post-secondary students to the campus and surrounds for weeklong leadership development sessions; CAPI has also developed and delivered on-demand training for judges and trauma care specialists from Thailand.

2018 CAPI intern Charlotte Whyte (UVic Anthropology undergrad, in pink) on a jungle training run with the "ULU Runners" group in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during her six-month CAPI internship with The Malaysian Social Research Institute.

CAPI's internship program

A video montage of some of our student interns and partners across the Asia-Pacific and Africa in celebration of our 30th anniversary.

I cannot think of any other endeavour I could have undertaken that would have challenged me in such deep and meaningful ways. Ultimately, by taking myself far outside of my comfort zone, by doing so many things for the first time (usually badly), and going through periods of doubt, questioning, and reflection, I had what has by far been the most transformative, fun, and rich learning experience of my life so far


UVic BCom student Will Howling spent seven months in India on a CAPI internship working with Participatory Research in Asia

[This internship] is about building connections across, and recognizing the fluidity of, the so-called "boundaries" between people. It's about conscious exploration, trying new things, getting to know new people, absorbing new ideas and perspectives. It's about having conversations and stepping outside of your comfort zone and returning a better person than when you left.


UVic Anthropology student Alex Lloyd spent three months in Australia working on her master's thesis exploring the impacs of transnational migration on the sexual subjectivities of young Indonesian women studying overseas.

I always wondered if the person I created for myself would come home with me. I can tell you, she definitely did. If you open up and let people in, the friends and experiences you've had become such a part of you that you are changed forever.


UVic Anthropology student Marlin Beswetherick spend six months in Kuala Lumpur on a CAPI internship working with the Malaysian Social Research Institute.

CAPI also houses the national “Landscapes of Injustice” project, which focuses on Japanese-Canadian dispossession during WWII (the long under-recognized counterpart of internment) and the Centre continues to host a continuous stream of cutting edge thinkers and practitioners to engage with the most pressing issues in the region. In a highly connected and mobile world characterized by progressively blurry boundaries, CAPI increasingly hosts programming dedicated to themes of a transnational nature: Asian involvement in Africa, “migration, mobility, and displacement,” and a “Southeast Asia in global context” roundtable discussion series. CAPI’s current “Regulating Globalization in South and Southeast Asia” project, in particular, has served as a powerful conduit for bringing new faces and partnerships to campus and facilitating unique overseas research experiences for early-career UVic faculty. This July, in the first of two planned conferences connected to the project, program participants will convene at the nascent Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law, the first law school in Bhutan, to present on issues of public law, legal orders, and governance.

Nima Dorji (a senior lecturer from Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law in Bhutan), Ratana Ly (a researcher with the Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law in Cambodia), and Kan Pongboonjun (a law instructor at Chiang Mai University, Thailand) are all undertaking their PhD studies in law at UVic through the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Advance Scholars (QES-AS) Scholarships program organized by CAPI and UVic Law under the project title “Regulating Globalization in South and Southeast Asia” (photo: September 2018).

Thirty years ago, with an eye to the future, Canada cast its gaze leftwards, across the Pacific, with the intention of engaging with an economically re-emerging Asia. CAPI came to be as an outcropping of this ambition. Today, as the university’s longest running Centre, CAPI stands as a testament to the importance of this vast and diverse region and to the people who have endeavoured to understand it.

“Everyone still thinks we are bigger than we are, which is the best tribute of all.”

Bill Neilson, upon his retirement in 2004 after twelve years as CAPI Director

For more of CAPI's history, view the CAPI 30th anniversary book (pdf)



1 "The great free-trade election of 1988": https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-great-free-trade-election-of-1988/article4576124/

2 "The Canada-US Free Trade Agreement" (CUSFTA): https://www.international.gc.ca/trade-commerce/assets/pdfs/agreements-accords/cusfta-e.pdf

3 CUSFTA, superseded by NAFTA in 1994, which, in turn, is likely to soon be replaced by CUSMA

4 Douglas Johnston, from the Introduction of “Asia-Pacific Legal Development” (UBC Press, 1998)

5 “Two Chairs for UVic,” Ring newspaper, vol. 10, no. 20, September 7, 1984.

6 Exactly one year to the day before the passing of Hu Yaobang, former Chairman and then-General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, whose death set off the Tiananmen Square protests

7 "David Lam". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 18 June 2018, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/david-see-chai-lam. Accessed 12 April 2019.

8 Then ex-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark were originally supposed to attend, but had to withdraw on account of the election (UVic Ring Newspaper, Volume 14, Number 18, November 4, 1988)

9 UVic Ring Newspaper, Volume 14, Number 18, November 4, 1988

10 https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/amitav-ghosh

11 UVic’s Director of the Office of International Affairs, quoted in CAPI’s 2010 Five Year Review

12 CAPI Director Bill Neilson (1994-2002), from the 2001/2 CAPI Annual Report.

13 "Help choosing a university in British Columbia": https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/canadian-university-report/help-choosing-a-university-in-british-columbia/article14980145/

by Jonathan Woods | 13 May 2019