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Pushing for a culture shift at Congress 2023

The conference returns to its first in-person meeting in four years under the theme of “Reckonings and Re-imaginings.”


As the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences approaches, the organizers of Canada’s largest academic gathering are taking stock of all that’s happened and changed since 2019 – the last time the event was held in person. With time to reflect on the many issues and events that have demanded a paradigm shift in Canadian academia – from COVID-19, to climate change, to the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing protests, to the uncovering of graves of Indigenous children at residential schools, and on – this year’s event is prioritizing themes of equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization, and social impact under the theme “Reckonings and Re-imaginings.”

“The pandemic itself was this huge watershed moment that forced many of us who had the luxury of staying in our homes to reflect and look on at a world that was changing, but also a world in which the disparities became so strikingly clear,” says Congress academic convenor, Andrea Davis.

From May 27 to June 2, 67 scholarly associations representing a range of academic disciplines in the social sciences and humanities will host an estimated total of 8,000 attendees at their annual conferences at York University in Toronto. The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS), the non-profit organization that puts on the annual event, started planning for in earnest more than two years ago, when the group approached Dr. Davis about the convenor job.

“It was clear that I could only take on this role if I was able to make a kind of call to reckon with what … these moments had produced or had forced us to think about,” explains Dr. Davis, a professor in York’s department of humanities.

To that end, it was important to Dr. Davis and Congress’s scholarly planning committee that Black and Indigenous thought be at the forefront of these conversations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Congress’s flagship Big Thinking series of public lectures. Not only are all of the invited speakers Black or Indigenous, but most of the events are organized as group discussions rather than the typical “sage on a stage” format.

“We’re trying to make Congress more than just about researchers and their research, and thinking about how community produces research, and how community might act as an archive.”

“[The scholarly planning committee] decided to move away solely from the idea of a ‘big thinker’ as a singular academic making pronouncements about the world on their own, to more conversations,” Dr. Davis says.

She adds that FHSS has been supportive of her ideas and those of the scholarly planning committee, even though they challenge conventions established over more than 90 years of Congress.

“The experiences of the past years, the challenges that universities and what the Federation have had to confront have meant that they have been more willing to listen and to go to places that maybe previously they would have been reluctant to go to,” says Dr. Davis, referring in part to the controversies FHSS has had to navigate starting four years ago.

The Black Canadian Studies Association withdraws from Congress

At Congress 2019, Shelby McPhee, a Black PhD candidate and member of the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA), was racially profiled when another conference-goer falsely accused him of stealing a laptop. Security and RCMP were called, who then detained Mr. McPhee while representatives of FHSS heard out the accuser.

It was an embarrassing, hurtful moment for Mr. McPhee. Within days the BCSA issued an open letter admonishing Congress organizers and soon other scholarly associations had also rallied together to demand accountability from FHSS and Congress on the matter.

Read also: Has the Federation done enough to address EDID issues at Congress?

“The academic community banded together and said, ‘This is a scholar, this is someone in our community and we don’t stand for this,’” explains Mr. McPhee. “Congress and the Federation had to do everything within their power to regain the trust of the academic community.”

Gabriel Miller, president and CEO of FHSS, says that member associations were right to hold the organization accountable for what happened then and for rebuilding trust in the four years since.

“Our community and members were a step ahead of us from the moment that that incident took place in terms of understanding the deeper problems that it represented, the trauma for Shelby and for especially other Black scholars in our community,” he says. “They also understood the need for action that would address that specific incident, but also contribute to a larger transformation of the Federation and of higher education.”

In their calls for accountability, the BCSA had issued four demands of FHSS: a public apology that included an assertion of zero tolerance for anti-Black racism and racial profiling, and a commitment to work with the BCSA to ensure that Congress is a welcoming space; that the Federation deliver a letter written by the BCSA to the individuals who accused Mr. McPhee (two individuals accused Mr. McPhee of the theft, only one of them was a member of the Federation); adding anti-Black racism to the theme of the next Congress; and waiving of the BCSA’s fees for the following year. FHSS quickly committed to meeting the demands. The Federation also suspended Mr. McPhee’s accuser for a minimum of three years and established criteria the individual has to meet before being allowed to return. (Mr. Miller says that to date, that person has yet to meet those requirements.)

OmiSoore Dryden, who holds the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, and rosalind hampton, assistant professor of Black studies at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, were co-presidents of the BCSA in 2019. They say that it took some time for FHSS to follow through on those demands.

The BCSA declined to participate in Congress 2020, which had been quickly reimagined as a virtual event following COVID lockdowns, because the group felt the online transition had been hastily organized in a way that undermined the original theme of “Confronting Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism.” In a public statement at the time, the BCSA noted that it “refuses the logic of neoliberal academia that assumes moving our work online to be an effective response in these times. … [A] virtual Congress further centres academic individualism at a time when we should be focusing on our collective well-being.”

“Consistently one of the things we came up against was the limits of imagination and the inability to anticipate how something’s going to land on Black people,” Dr. hampton explains. The BCSA sat out of Congress in 2021, stating that FHSS had again failed to meet the group’s most pressing requests – that participant fees be waived for BCSA student-members and community members, and that FHSS formally commit to a Black studies theme for a future Congress. The Federation eventually agreed to those terms and the BCSA returned to Congress for a virtual conference in 2022.


In 2020, FHSS appointed a Congress advisory committee on equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization to identify and address issues around EDID. In 2021, that committee presented their findings in “Igniting Change: Final Report and Recommendations,” which included 43 recommendations on what FHSS should prioritize to advance its EDID goals.

So far, FHSS has published three updates on its progress with those recommendations, most recently this past April, and Mr. Miller tells University Affairs that “more than half” of the recommendations have either been fully or substantially completed.

Some of the changes instituted since 2021 include a new standing committee on EDID within the board of directors and a new staff position for a senior adviser on EDID (FHSS is also currently hiring a research assistant – EDID). FHSS also established a three-year $500,000 EDID fund for scholarly associations’ own EDID initiatives; established complimentary Congress registration for Black and Indigenous graduate students as well as complimentary passes for Black and Indigenous community members; improved accessible language services at events and improved accessibility around FHSS’s formal communications channels; offered child-care subsidies; launched the Big Thinking Podcast to spotlight humanities and social science researchers within the context of EDID; and introduced a grant for translating materials from English and French to Indigenous languages.

“The grant is incredible capacity-building for Indigenous languages, which is something we’ve never really done at all,” says Simon Fraser University Indigenous studies professor Deanna Reder, a former member of the FHSS board of directors and current member of the standing committee on EDID. “I have great deal of respect for the bilingual nature of the Federation, but we have to remember that [English and French] are the colonizing languages upon Canada. So this grant is a gesture. It’s not the answer, but it’s a starting point.”

Mr. McPhee says that more repair is indeed needed. Although FHSS was in communication with him following the events at Congress 2019, he says that dialogue stalled when the pandemic hit. “If I were a published, white academic, they would do everything within their power to repair the relationship with me. But I think that in the end, I was just a grad student, and a Black grad student at that,” he says. The experience and response highlight the intersections of Blackness, precarious labour and oppression in academia, he adds.

However, Mr. McPhee says that he doesn’t feel bitter about how communication has broken down and is grateful for the community that coalesced around him when he needed support. “The BCSA stood in solidarity with me and they did everything within their power to help me get some sort of justice in the end. Those people and those associations stood up for me and they forced the hand of the Federation to respond.”

In response, Mr. Miller says that FHSS remains “deeply sorry for the painful discrimination Shelby McPhee was forced to endure that day in 2019, and we are indebted to him for speaking out and demanding change, and contributing to a transformation happening in Congress, the Federation, and our academic community.”

Congress 2023 and beyond

Dr. Davis says that as much as she and her colleagues are looking forward to convening in person this year, it was important for this iteration of Congress to continue in a hybrid capacity to make space for those with access needs and for those who are concerned about the growing environmental impact of travel. (Regarding the latter concern, the conference is also cutting down on the amount of “swag” handed out.)

“When people leave, they will say, ‘This was a different kind of Congress.’”

Both Dr. Dryden and Dr. hampton credit Dr. Davis for helping to get Congress to where it is today. “In the meeting in preparation for Congress 2021, we had asked [FHSS] to agree to commit to a future conference to address anti-Blackness, and they said no to us,” Dr. Dryden recalls. “And now we see this conference led by Dr. Davis. I feel so good about this. I support her in this work because it really was a lot of collective effort and intervention to bring Congress to this point.”

One major way that Dr. Davis and the scholarly planning committee have changed the face of Congress is in the way they are engaging with youth in the Jane and Finch community, the neighbourhood surrounding the York campus, which is predominantly made up of racialized households.

“We’re bringing in 21 [local] high school students into two of our Big Thinking lectures and linking them with undergraduate students,” she says. “We’re trying to make Congress more than just about researchers and their research, and thinking about how community produces research, and how community might act as an archive.”

Dr. Davis adds: “What we are trying to do as a scholarly planning committee is a culture shift. … Shift the way Congress has been done to make it inclusive in a way that is not just, ‘These are pretty words we put up on our platform,’ but in a way that can be felt. When people leave, they will say, ‘This was a different kind of Congress.’”

Michael Rancic
Michael Rancic is a freelance journalist and co-founder of cooperative music journalism platform New Feeling. He lives in Toronto.
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  1. Leah / June 5, 2023 at 13:21

    How about a follow-up article asking attendees to assess the impact of these initiatives.

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