One last look back at Congress 2013: My top 7 highlights

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Maryse Bernard

I arrived at Congress 2013 feeling intimidated. With a title like “Canada’s largest academic gathering,” it was difficult not to be. Its history of bringing together some of our country’s most innovative thinkers across a wide range of disciplines (Margaret Atwood last year—seriously?), only added to the pressure. Freshly graduated with a BA in writing, I had been hired to cover some of the events for the Federation’s blog. As the impressive conference approached, I prayed to the journalism gods that I was up for the challenge. 

All things considered, I still don’t think I grasped the magnitude of Congress until it began. 7000 attendees were expected at the University of Victoria, and that number nearly hit a thousand more.  Renowned scholars such as George Dyson and Joy Kogawa mingled with the general public. I watched the sleepy summer-campus transform: the quad flooded with a diverse all-ages crowd, artisan booths, food stands, and outdoor concerts. In the media room, newspaper clippings of Congress coverage spread across the wall as the days went by. Publications ranged from local Victoria news sources like the Times Colonist, to the National Post. The Wall Street Journal even included an international press release of the occasion. 

UVic President David Turpin compared Congress’ size and preparation to the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games. It became clear that this was a monumental event in our city’s history.

Despite its prestigious reputation and the renowned scholars assembled from nearly 70 associations, we young bloggers were welcomed with nothing but genuine respect - part of the team from the moment we stepped into the media room. Congress 2013’s warm environment reflected this year’s theme of “@ the edge": a strong sense of inclusivity and the acceptance of diversity resonated everywhere on the campus grounds.

Reflecting upon last week’s whirlwind of stimulating ideas and conversations, I’m already in Congress-withdrawal. The opportunities for positive change and furtherance of our society left me inspired. For my final blog, I’d like to take an informal approach and look back on some of my favorite moments "@ the edge". Aside from the eclectic events I covered, here’s a list of personal highlights:

1. Honouring the Community’s First Peoples

Our beautiful UVic campus stands on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish and Straits Salish peoples. Throughout Congress, I was glad to have their community recognized at the start of each event.

For the panel “Community-campus collaborations in Aboriginal communities: Challenges and opportunities,” I was lucky enough to attend the discussion held in the carved cedar walls of the First Peoples House. Coast Salish Elders, Joyce and Victor Underwood, welcomed the audience and shared some of their customs.

2.  La Connection Francophone

I grew up in a bilingual household, only ever speaking French with my father. Unfortunately, I don’t have as many opportunities today to communicate in the language. After third year university, I couldn’t fit any more French classes into my schedule in order to graduate on time. My Francophone identity is still strong, but I felt like I was ignoring an important part of my heritage.

When I read that one of my favorite Quebec-based authors, Dany Laferrière, would be a Big Thinking speaker this year, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I immediately requested to cover the event.

Not only did I get to attend, but I was given the opportunity to write about his discussion in French. This experience, along with hearing conversations en Français all over campus, meant the world to me. Although it isn’t always recognized, BC holds a passionate Francophone community. Last week, Victoria’s shined through.


3. Outdoor Activities

Delegates didn’t need to look far for a brain break.The conference kept an upbeat energy with a constant series of outdoor events. Food trucks like the local Hungry Rooster served delicious Eastern European cuisine, and the ScholarSIP tent offered cold beer. Attendees could browse artisan stands while listening to music played from the Celebration Square Concert & Performance Stage.

Buffy Sainte-Marie drew in a huge crowd Wednesday night, but smaller daytime shows also delivered great entertainment. All you had to do was step outside to be swept up into the action. The perfect weather didn’t hurt either.

4. Browsing the Congress Expo

My breaks were often spent perusing the bookshelves that lined the McKinnon Gym for the Congress Expo. Over 60 exhibitors representing publications from across Canada created an enormous pop-up library. Book launches and writing workshops were also hosted—a real treat for literary lovers.

5. Catching an Evening Poetry Reading

The trouble with Congress is that it’s almost too much of a good thing. Endless presentations run throughout the day, and you’re sure to miss at least a few from your “must-see” list. One event on the top of mine was the poetry reading held in the Fine Arts Building on Tuesday night. It followed the morning’s workshop theme of “Attention, poetry, politics,” and showcased two of my favourite poets, Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn. I managed to catch the event as the day’s activities winded down.

Tim was one of my creative writing professors this year, and introduced me to Zwicky’s poetry and essays. I fell in love upon first read. When she walked into the room on Tuesday, I felt slightly starstruck.

Poets Sue Sinclair, Warren Heiti and Lucy Alford also made up the program. Each delivered passionate performances of their poetry, hypnotizing the audience into an attentive stillness. My personal connection to Zwicky’s work made her reading especially moving. Her heartfelt delivery and evocative language engaged me from start to finish. I was thrilled to see Congress recognize the more creative side of academia, proving its interdisciplinary reputation. 


6. The Media Room Team

There’s nothing like working around bright, enthusiastic people to motivate ourselves. The bloggers and media room team always kept a professional attitude, all the while having a blast covering Congress events.

I couldn’t have asked for a more positive environment, with new friends that I hope to see again soon. Great job, everyone! I know you’re off to do big things.

7. The Blend of Modern and Traditional

Technology’s infiltration into our everyday lives is undeniable. The world is increasingly interconnected and present online, and academia is no exception to the trend. Many Congress presentations recognized this omnipresence, but suggested we embrace it instead of reject change. While retaining our learning and literary traditions, we can evolve alongside technology. By rethinking certain modes of communication and information exchange, we don’t need to sacrifice our history.


Congress’ online presence through social media served as a perfect demonstration. Twitter feeds exploded "@ the edge". Constant live tweets allowed anyone, anywhere to follow events through direct quotes and updates.


It was with a heavy heart, and an even heavier head full of new ideas that we packed up our books from UVic. I left feeling confident that we can thrive in life "@ the edge", and challenge the constraints of society by awarding a voice to all. The Congress experience opens our eyes and broadens our minds to a future of equality and innovation. In my eyes, it unites the leaders of tomorrow, with the pioneers of today.

See you next year at Brock University, Ontario! Let’s see the progress we can make before then, Team Congress.


Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2013