Thursday, January 1, 2015


Since 2003, The Eramosa Institute has been holding The Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian, adding, they say, "a new voice to the ongoing conversation of what it means to be Canadian and what role our country could and should play in a changing world." Past speakers and contributors have included Lee Smolin, John Ralston Saul, Alexandre Trudeau, Tom King, M.G. Vassanji, Sheila Heti, and Eleanor Wachtel. This year's keynote lecture will be given by Janice Gross Stein and Brigitte Shim, with musical guest Basia Bulat and author Miriam Toews.

Amidst a flurry of holidays and last minute preparation for this year's installment on Friday January 9th at the River Run Centre, The Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian Team (amalgamated responses from Douglas McMullen, Valerie Hall (President of Eramosa Institute), Shawn van Sluys, Michael Barnstijn, Marva Wisdom, Tarah Walsh, and Joy Roberts) took the time to field a few questions.

How was The Lecture hatched? And, in over 10 years, has it strayed from its animating intentions?

The Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian was originally an attempt, by some of us who had just moved to this area (or moved back) and were thinking about how we wanted to live, to make a contribution to the aspects of this area that had attracted us here: its strong arts and culture offerings, its concern for a tolerant just society, and its openness to ideas. We thought we could showcase some of those strengths to other areas of the country and also make available outside influences to further inspire the mix here.

Now there is a large group of organizers, and new young volunteers, and I’d say the reasons for putting on the Lecture have stayed pretty much the same. If anything, there is a greater sense of urgency to keep the discussions alive in the face of increasing societal challenges.

What do you guys look for when choosing a Lecturer?

We look for people at the top of their fields. Then we look to see how well they can articulate what’s going on in that field and whether they can link it to the world around us. After that we see if they are approachable. If they have some name-recognition, that’s a bonus. But Guelph has come out for evenings where the participants were not well-known. The audience is just as much a risk-taking one as our organizing group is. Also, we try to cover a wide variety of fields. We are always learning ourselves as we plan and that’s personally rewarding to us as volunteers.

When choosing the year's full roster of participants, do you begin with a theme in mind, or do you let who you've chosen lead the way?

Our overarching theme, “On Being Canadian,” serves as a guide in our selection of speakers. We have given thought to having a “theme in mind” but it seemed to get too contrived. We have a lot of parts to the evening, so what if one didn’t fit the theme and looked out of place for no other reason than that? It seems more meaningful to us to choose each participant for what they have to offer and let them make the best contribution they feel capable of. It is often a bit nerve-wracking, but that’s really the thrill of the whole endeavour. There is the risk that comes with relinquishing control. Because no matter how many conversations we have with participants about the evening and what we hope to accomplish, someone invariably surprises us.

What's the importance of having more than one voice or one means of contribution on stage? Is there a curation at work when deciding who will be on stage? A specific conversation you hope to create?

As Alissa Firth-Eagland at Musagetes would say, as long as “curation” harkens back to its origin, meaning “to care for,” then we do curate. We try hard to put our own plans and ideas in the background once the participants are chosen and see what happens. Alissa quotes author Karen Love when she says curators “create and contribute to public dialogues about ideas and artistic strategies that address the world in all its complexities.” Because the world is complex and the important thing for deciding how one wants to live is to hear as many intelligent and informed voices as possible, to be inspired by the possibilities.

In your time with The Guelph Lecture, have you seen much aftermath? Have you seen the ideas raised live outside of the night itself?

We are really impressed with the media coverage of the evening, and that gets the ideas out to many more than the 500-700 who attend. It’s not that we get lots and lots of advertising, although we do get our fair share. What’s really rewarding to us is that the reporters who have covered the event actually thought about it and tried to get to the core of the messages. Sometimes that takes some doing! 

We had one very dense keynote presentation, for example, and one literary participant who got a bit risque — might have been more appropriate to shock a junior high school audience into more tolerant views but seemed a bit over-the-top for the 500+ people in the audience –– anyway, we could have been massacred in the press and had all our work of years undone, but on both occasions, the reporter saw through to the intentions, found the nugget of inspiration, and combined it with the evening as a whole. The result is that what we offer on stage for those who can attend gets amplified in the community through honest, thoughtful coverage. 

As for aftermath in a bigger society sense, well… as we always say, there are some powerful forces out there right now that seem to be polarizing issues, rather than bringing us to common ground so we can find a way forward together. We see anecdotal evidence of positive influences of the evening but clearly we can’t claim any responsibility for massive improvements! What we do see, that’s hopeful, is more conversation. People talk about the ideas, starting at the reception right after the event, which often goes quite late and is quite animated. They buy the speakers’ books and the musicians’ music. They stop us on the street to opine on our last effort or to suggest others for our stage. There does seem to be a life gathering around the event and integrating it into other actives as well. One final indication of the possibility that ideas may be living outside of the night itself is that in the past we had to explain what the event is; now we have many individuals and groups looking forward to the evening and inquiring about the speakers

Canadian's seem to be constantly striving towards self-definition - which in itself becomes a sort of definition, I think. As the Lectures build up, are we starting to get to the bottom of anything? Have you found yourself in the audience thinking, "Yep. This is who we are”?

Yes! We are people who don’t mind bombastic titles and goals but we defy attempts at specific details around those. Although some of our audience members object, and some of our speakers ignore our suggestions, we don’t ask, or even want, anyone to address directly what it means to be Canadian. Those on stage should just demonstrate who they are and how our society looks from their point of view. Then we, as audience members, can ponder these many situations, and the values that create them, decide what we want for ourselves and our communities.

There are quite divergent views around the organizing table, but one thing unites everyone who has been involved in the Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian: we all think Canada’s links with the rest of the world are our most important feature.

Any stand out memories from past Lectures?

Oh, definitely. Some for good reasons, some not so. For the latter, I’m thinking of the episodes I mentioned earlier. The positive are myriad:

  • Lee Smolin, maybe our next Einstein (although he would object to that title), backstage trying to play with the musicians
  • Sacha Trudeau jumping in his Volkswagen and driving here from Montreal, crashing in one of the volunteer’s guest room, and really mentoring another young participant who needed the help
  • an author who wouldn’t let his publisher cancel his visit to Guelph just because another offer came in that might have sold more books
  • all the participants who win major awards between the time we invite them and the time they come to Guelph, and who don’t try to renegotiate for a fee
  • our first sponsorship, which came from Knar Jewellery, and they have given every year since.
  • Peter Mansbridge popping in from the theatre next door where he was doing election coverage to say “hello” and “what a great event."
  • all the participants who are in touch after to say nice things about how Guelph treated them and how meaningful the evening was for them, in spite of their being on stage for only a portion of the evening.

Any hint of what attendees can hope from this year's?

All we organizers have are hints right now too. A couple of our volunteers have met with the speakers, Janice Stein and Brigitte Shim, who indicate that they are excited to be on stage together. That’s our first big relief. They’ve pointed out that the condo boom in Toronto is going to be the site of our next slums. That’s pretty provocative so we are sure there will be lots of discussion. Basia Bulat and Miriam Toews have both been winning awards. We are hearing comments that indicate this “will be the best yet.” So we are hopeful! But there will be those surprises…. As one repeat audience member says, “I always buy a ticket and just sit there to see what will happen!” 

For ticket info, contact the River Run Centre.

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