Oh, The Humanities

Congress brings Canada’s liberal arts spotlight to Saskatchewan

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

The University of Regina has a strong liberal arts tradition that dates back to its founding in the 1960s. So it’s odd that in the 87 years that the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences has been around, it’s never been in Regina. In fact, it’s only been held once in Saskatchewan — that was in 2007, when the University of Saskatchewan hosted it.

Mind you, with over 70 scholarly associations involved, each holding their annual conference while participating in broader Congress events, it’s a daunting undertaking. Around 5,000 academics, researchers, policy-makers and students typically attend, and May 26–June 1 the University of Regina is hosting Congress 2018.

While Congress is national in scope, it does offer a special opportunity to shine light on local and regional concerns, says André Magnan, a University of Regina associate sociology professor who is on the organizing committee.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the university to showcase what we do and some of the knowledge that’s being produced here and how it can be useful and meaningful to the broader community,” says Magnan.

“We’ve developed a whole suite of events under the banner Community Connections that are organized by faculty and students and are open and free to the public,” says Magnan. “Each one showcases how social sciences and humanities scholarship can be important for addressing challenges or problems that are faced by diverse communities.”

Gathering Diversities

Each Congress has a theme, and with the recent rise of reactionary populist and neo-Nazi movements this year’s theme couldn’t be more timely: Gathering Diversities.

“We recognize that our campus, city, and province, are increasingly diverse,” says Magnan. “We not only want to reflect that diversity, but think about it and grapple with it in creative ways. We certainly recognize that diversity is a great opportunity to develop new ways of thinking about complex problems.”

According to University of Regina statistics, since 2009 its international student population has increased by 122 per cent. The population of Indigenous students has risen by 84 per cent, and Indigenous history and culture will be a focus of Congress programming, says Magnan.

“National chief Perry Bellegarde will kick Congress off with a keynote address on the role of education in reconciliation. In our Big Thinking series, one speaker is Melina Laboucan-Massimo who is an environmental activist from Alberta. She’ll be looking at Indigenous women and climate change. Buffy Sainte-Marie is here as well for a concert and book launch for an anthology of Indigenous Saskatchewan writing that University of Regina Press has published.”

Those are only a few of the highlights. Feminist and LGBT+ scholarship in the humanities and social sciences will also be foregrounded.

Critical Time

For several decades now, the liberal arts have been the poor cousin at the table as universities, feeling pressure from neoliberal governments and their corporate allies, have funnelled scarce resources into science, technology and business programs.

Those are all fine areas to invest in, but the humanities and social sciences are equally important, says Gabriel Miller, executive director of the Federation for Humanities and Social Sciences.

“There’s been a trend in the last 20 years to overlook their value, partly because the changes in technology are so striking, and the opportunities associated with technology have felt so urgent,” says Miller. “But I think we’re on the cusp of a real renewal in people’s understanding and appreciation of the humanities and social sciences.

“If you care about people, then you have to care about the humanities and social sciences because scholars there are dedicated to understanding human life better,” says Miller. “That immediately informs important questions such as how to create jobs, prevent crime and build communities where there is tolerance and diversity. Those things and a thousand others are the daily preoccupation of scholars.”

Technology isn’t the only factor in play here. In fact, humanities and social sciences scholars have benefited greatly from digital tools to collect and analyze data and communicate their findings to others. But they’ve also had to navigate some stormy political waters.

As Miller noted, the focus of the humanities and social sciences is people. But people, especially those from marginalized groups that are outside the neoliberal power structure of transnational corporations and wealthy entrepreneurs, don’t rate very high.

That attitude was summed up famously by former prime minister Stephen Harper in a 2013 diss about “committing sociology” when it was suggested his government study the root causes of terrorism; and later, the broader socio-economic context of Canada’s crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous girls and women.

The federal Liberal government, in its 2018 budget, made a five-year $215 million commitment to fund new research at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “It’s a modest increase, but it’s an important recognition that these disciplines will be one of the pillars of future knowledge in Canada,” says Miller.

The Liberals also created a fund for cross-disciplinary research. That’s something Miller applauds too.

“It’s a recognition that funding research in the old silos alone isn’t going to be enough to deal with problems such as climate change, crime prevention, automation and urban planning.”

Some collaboration within the social sciences and humanities, and with other academic disciplines such as science, engineering and business, is happening now. But there’s plenty of room for more, says Miller.

“I think we’re barely scratching the surface and people are recognizing that. One example is the whole discussion around artificial intelligence and automation. What we’re seeing are teams of researchers that also include a social scientist to first understand what the impact is on workers, and who might be displaced, and what impact that would have on communities.”

Ethics is another active area of inquiry, says Miller. “We’ve already seen just with Facebook the ethical questions we’re dealing with from new information technologies. Well, when we have artificially intelligent drivers at the wheels of our cars, or managing traffic in our cities, and reviewing data of every kind, those ethical questions are only going to multiply.”

Far from being a drain on precious societal resources, then, investing in the humanities and social sciences makes good economic sense. That’s especially true since robots and computers are poised to take over most of the simple physical and cognitive work people do now. Soft skills such as leadership, innovation, creativity and collaboration remain valued in the workplace though, and that’s the humanities and social sciences in a nutshell.

Coupled with strong investment in science, technology, the arts and other disciplines, the work Canada is doing in social sciences and humanities, Miller thinks, could have important international consequences that extend far beyond our economic well-being.

“Canada has a very important story to tell that has lessons both for ourselves and other parts of the world. We have a vast country with a system of government that’s managed to hold different regions together. We are a successful country with two official languages, and we are a country like others that is grappling with a colonial history and our relationship with Indigenous people.

“We hear people say ‘The world needs more Canada’,” Miller concludes. “But it only needs more Canada if we are really willing and ready to share the truth about who we are — the good and the bad — and what’s working in terms of building the future we want.”

To learn more about the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences visit congress2018.ca.