Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Canada’s largest academic conference debates country’s democracy

An interactive installation at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences simulates a refugee crisis on familiar soil.

Redline Interactive

If thousands of academics are talking to each other about their research, does it matter if no else hears them?

That is the challenge that has confronted the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the annual gathering of academics from across the country, since its inception almost 90 years ago.

But at a time when the expertise of scholars is under attack from populist skeptics, there was no question among the organizers and participants at this year's edition that engaging the public was more critical than ever.

Story continues below advertisement

And with Ryerson University playing host to the massive academic conference in downtown Toronto, the time was also right for including a variety of interactive events that give a non-academic audience the chance to think about local and global conflicts.

"The contrast between 9,000 researchers and educators gathering in our most diverse city versus a message that is being delivered south of the border, but also across the ocean – suspicious of knowledge, dismissive of facts, impatient with diversity – that's a striking contrast," said Gabriel Miller, the executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is the event's primary organizer.

So far, Canada has not confronted the kind of xenophobic calls for political and economic isolationism that have taken hold in the United States or parts of Europe, Mr. Miller said. But one of the issues the congress is exploring is whether our multiculturalism and global outlook would survive if Canadian politicians began making such appeals, he added.

"You would not find any feeling within our universities that we can be complacent, or that we are immune from these forces," he said.

Indeed, several panels that are open to the public will discuss whether the country could ever throw its support behind a populist upstart such as Donald Trump. Others will examine the role of universities in a world where threats to open borders are growing, and Canadian citizenship in light of reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

A few events are interactive, including a virtual refugee experience that places the viewer in the position of a Canadian family facing sudden dislocation.

"I came out of it crying and shaken, it's very visceral," said Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, which put together the installation last fall and has been touring it at various national events ever since.

Story continues below advertisement

Topical panels and interactive events are crucial if universities are to demonstrate their continued relevance, participants said.

"If our information and research is solely circulated and recirculated in academia, then frankly, we are not doing our job as publicly funded organizations," said Bessma Momani, a political-science professor and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance at the University of Waterloo.

Universities, Dr. Momani said, must do more to recognize the importance of making research available to a general audience.

"Our research is pretty damn robust," she said. "But if we are only going to talk to ourselves, and talk in words where we don't communicate our ideas easily, then we become diminished in value to the public and that's really quite dangerous," Dr. Momani said.

Canada's actions and reputation as a tolerant, accepting country do not necessarily mean that its future looks the same, other academics at the congress said.

"Canada has an ethos that values multiculturalism and anti-discrimination, settlement programs that promote integration of new immigrants – these are our cherished national values," said Debra Thomson, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University and a Canadian.

Story continues below advertisement

"A lot of Americans thought that the norms of American liberalism and democracy and egalitarianism would be enough to prevent some of what we feared might happen," said Dr. Thomson, who is speaking on a panel titled The Trumpization of Canada: Can it happen here?

"And what the last 120 days have demonstrated is that those norms are not enough."

One of the ways that Canada can protect its democracy is by looking critically at the country's history and present, said Pamela Sugiman, the dean of arts at Ryerson University.

"I became dean in the summer of 2016 and began to shape [the event] with my own vision, but also with what I was picking up from students and faculty, with the critical lens we have at Ryerson," she said.

As a result, several events are addressing aboriginal history in the city and today's efforts at reconciliation, a theme that Congress is also emphasizing.

"We are trying to bring the city to the social sciences and humanities and the social sciences and humanities to the city," Dr. Sugiman said.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to