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Congress 2019: UBC throws open its doors to academics, and the public

UBC will throw open its doors for the 88th Annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences for seven days of meetings, presentations and panels for more than 10,000 academics and you too, if you want.

If that sounds about as dry as a mouth full of saltines, you might want to look again. More than 300 events are free to the public, including theatre and musical productions, art and literary exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. You just have to register for a community pass.

“The public programming is incredibly rich,” said Laura Moss, the academic convener for the congress. “Anybody can come and have extraordinary access to contemporary research and a whole bunch of events, plays and films, along with the people that produce them.”

Congress 2019 (https://www.congress2019.ca/) is the biggest academic conference in Canada. Thousands of scheduled events will take place on the main campus of the University of B.C. starting June 1.

“We expect thousands of members of the public to come and there’s really a lot to see and do,” she said.

The keynote Big Thinking lecture series is stocked with artists and storytellers appearing daily at the Frederic Wood Theatre, including the multi-talented Indigenous performer Margo Kane, documentarist and scientist David Suzuki, artist Stan Douglas and novelist Esi Edugyan.

“Art can be a way to tease out important contemporary issues,” said Moss, a professor of Canadian literature at UBC. “I personally work at the intersection of art and politics and I really wanted to bring that out in the programming.”

The speakers will address issues of free speech, censorship and access built around three broad questions: Who speaks for whom? Who listens? And who benefits?

“We will explore who gets to talk, who is in the circle and who hears the messages and we should talk about who profits from that, someone or the community?” she said.

Moss designed the program to highlight the value of the arts and humanities in every facet of society and life.

Governments and universities have a near obsession with promoting STEM, for reasons of commerce and gender equity. And while there’s a lot of value in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the humanities and social sciences have not enjoyed the same level of public enthusiasm lately.

“I really wanted to shift the emphasis back to the humanities, the arts, the social sciences,” she said. “These are the social, political and cultural aspects of everyday life and they can be very grounded in public policy, but (we) approach it with the human impact in mind.”

Look back to look forward

The Galatea Project is a theatrical collaboration between UBC’s English department and Bard on the Beach to mount a production of John Lyly’s 1588 play Galatea about two girls disguised as boys who fall in love. The play is set in a low valley in 16th century Lincolnshire threatened by climate change.

I am not kidding.

“It’s incredible and one of the most relevant plays out there and it was written before Shakespeare,” she said.

Literary scholars shared years of their research into the play with the actors and directors. They in turn brought the characters’ struggles with gender issues, sexuality and an impending climate crisis to life more than four centuries after it was first performed for Queen Elizabeth I. Galatea will be performed June 2.

“People have been thinking and talking about these issues for centuries and there is a great deal we can learn by looking back at those conversations,” Moss said.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale imagined a dystopian future in the ’80s that seems to become more relevant than ever in the age of Trump, she noted.

“There are 5,000 events happening over the course of the week, so it’s almost beyond imagining,” said Moss. “There is so much cool stuff, I want people to come and enjoy it.”

Dozens of literary and academic publishers are booked for the Congress Expo, including Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, Harper Collins Canada and publishing houses from Yale, MIT, Georgetown and University of Toronto. Some of the publishers are also holding scheduled events exploring themes of reconciliation, gender equity and politics among others.

Picture Perfect: Blind Ambitions is an exhibition of highly textured art by visually impaired artists and daily “meditative mash-ups” with artists and internationally renowned disability scholars, presented by UBC’s Wingspan and Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture.

Join the conversation

More than 70 academic associations will hold their annual meetings through the run of the conference between June 1 and 7 and thousands of the attending academics plan to present studies and papers to their peers.

“It’s hugely important for people to interact face-to-face,” said Moss. “Congress has 73 associations coming together ranging in size from more than a thousand members to just over a dozen in some disciplines like Hungarian studies.”

“Some universities have just one or two specialists in a particular area so this is the one time they have to come together and have really dynamic conversations among people who might be working most of the time in virtual isolation,” she said.

Parallel to those interactions between people in similar fields of study is a whole range of multidisciplinary events under the theme Circles of Conversation to encourage scholars, students, political leaders, citizens and activists to share, debate and dissent on topics such as sustainability, health, education and especially Indigenous issues.

“It’s an opportunity to problem solve in a social way that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries and those kinds of conversations need to happen in person,” she said.

It is often said that the real value of a conference is not in the presentations on the schedule, but in the freewheeling conversations that happen over drinks afterward. Circles of Conversation aims to create that kind of atmosphere among people who may approach problems from very different perspectives.

But if you prefer a more traditional after-conference convo, the Congress does have its own beer — Dialager by Howe Sound Brewing — brewed to promote dialogue and wash down snacks in the Social Zone.

Big ideas


SFU lecturer Stewart Prest will present a paper on emerging issues in civic politics.

Jason Payne /

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SFU political science lecturer Stewart Prest is working feverishly on a paper he expects and even hopes will be gently critiqued and challenged by his colleagues at Congress 2019.

In The New Urbanism — which he has developed with political podcaster Ian Bushfield — Prest says that Vancouver’s traditional right-left political split has essentially disintegrated in favour of a more complex dynamic built along issues of urban life, housing, transportation and affordability.

Vancouver’s old two-channel political universe has exploded into a whole multi-channel cable-TV-style array of six-plus niche offerings, not based on traditional left-right divisions about social equity and fiscal responsibility, but on how the city will grow and house its citizens.

The right-leaning NPA failed to capture a majority in the last civic election after the party’s constituency split in three, with Hector Bremner founding Yes Vancouver and Wai Young heading the populist Coalition Vancouver.

The left has similarly fragmented into COPE, OneCity Vancouver and the spent brand that is Vision Vancouver.

“You can usually stick with an economic left-right spectrum as one axis, but depending on the issues of the day you can put any number of issues on the second axis,” said Prest. “We have a spectrum now in Vancouver that we hadn’t really thought about before.”

Prest and Bushfield sort the parties based on their support for “urbanist” fast-paced high density development or “conservationist” slow growth.

“When you plot them on urbanism, it makes how the parties and candidates were positioning themselves make a lot more sense,” said Prest.

Other levels of government may not be immune to the proliferation of parties with single-issue appeal. Canada already has six parties represented in Parliament, while the U.K. has nine.

An ethical dilemma


Ryan M. Katz-Rosene will present a paper on the environmental impacts of air travel.

Jean Levac /

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To fly, or not to fly. That is the question Ryan Katz-Rosene had to confront when deciding to attend Congress 2019.

The University of Ottawa assistant professor and vice-president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada will be thinking about the carbon footprint of that flight. That’s because when he lands, Katz-Rosene will present a paper examining the aviation industry’s impact on Earth’s climate and the so-far fruitless efforts to curb its impact.

Air pollution caused by international flights has doubled over the past 20 years and is expected to double again in the next 20.

Already a brutally inefficient mode of transport, efficiency gains in commercial aviation are being outstripped by the growth of the industry by a worrying margin.

So, is it ethical to fly? The answers are tricky.

“It’s an unsolvable policy challenge,” said Katz-Rosene. “Aviation offers tremendous benefits to our society, whether it’s the value it contributes to the economy, the number of jobs that it contributes, but more importantly the connectivity,” he said. “We can see other parts of the world, visit family and friends.”

But those benefits really accrue only to the richest people on the planet. Before you protest about your impoverishment, 80 per cent of the world’s population has never set foot on a plane. If you fly — ever — you are an elite.

“Canada is a rich country and access to aviation is part of the norm for us and demand is growing tremendously,” he said.

But the environmental impacts of aviation as so severe that there is a growing movement of caring citizens who have decided it is not ethical to fly. Ever.

Katz-Rosene may join them, but not before leading a discussion of the industry’s plans to cap and then reduce the carbon footprint of international air travel through an agreement called CORSIA, Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.

Will it work? Not so far.

Because most offsetting projects fail to reduce emissions, they amount to little more than a “carbon laundering scheme,” he said. “This will probably be my last work-related flight for the foreseeable future.”

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