Vancouver's intellectual life comes alive with a series of strong lectures
When I moved to Vancouver more than 25 years ago, this city wasn’t known for offering a great deal of intellectual stimulation at the end of the work day.
On Saturday nights, I would sometimes hop on the bus and head out to the UBC Point Grey campus for the weekly Vancouver Institute lectures in the Woodward Instructional Resources Centre. But beyond that, there weren’t any regular events.
The downtown library at the corner of Robson and Burrard streets was too small for major public lectures. At that time, SFU hadn’t opened its Harbour Centre campus or the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in the Woodward’s complex. And the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts hadn’t been built at UBC.
I still remember reading a stinging article about Vancouver in the Report on Business magazine by William Thorsell (later an editor of the Globe and Mail), in which he derided the city’s second-rate universities. He even compared Vancouver to Marilyn Monroe—all flash and no substance.
Much has been written since then about the rise of Vancouver as a more important city on the world stage. Over the years, the media have showered attention on advances in urban planning, culinary choices, the Olympics, and arts and culture, including the growth of the local film industry.
I would argue that we have seen a similar explosion on the academic side. UBC has moved up the list of the world's top-rated universities. It's now in 25th place, according to the 2012 Times Higher Education Reputation Rankings.
SFU consistently comes out among the very best in Canada in the annual Macleans university rankings. Both have built new campuses downtown, weaving themselves into the fabric of city life.
We have also seen phenomenal growth in the number of public lectures, which nourish us intellectually.
Last night, there was a veritable banquet of choices. University of California at Berkeley feminist philosopher Judith Butler filled the Vogue Theatre for UBC's Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies spring lecture.
Butler was treated as a rock star by some of her fans, who lined up outside two hours before she was scheduled to speak so they could get seats in the front row. Her lecture examined why people are increasingly demonstrating in the streets as an expression and as a protest against their own vulnerability.
“I think we can see in such situations, with or without streets, some basic requirements of the body are at the centre of political mobilizations,” she said. “We could certainly make a list of those: bodies require food and shelter, protection from injury and destruction, freedom to move, employment, health care. Bodies require other bodies for support, for passion, for survival. And it matters what age those bodies are and whether they are able-bodied, since in all forms of dependency, bodies require not just one other person, but social systems of support that are complexly human and technical.”
Meanwhile over at Foo’s Ho Ho in Chinatown, author and former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong discussed her brilliant new book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption, and, Yes, Happiness.
And at the North Shore Credit Union Centre for the Performing Arts, former CIBC economist Jeff Rubin talked about the impact of sustained high oil prices on the global economy. Rubin’s lecture came shortly after the release of his provocative new book, The End of Growth, which I reviewed earlier this month.
The previous evening, there were two great free lectures. I attended the Vancouver International Writers Festival’s event at the Vancouver Public Library central branch, featuring authors Noel Richler and Debbie and Trevor Greene.
It was a tough choice because the former president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Arthur Hanson, was giving a free lecture at SFU Harbour Centre on the growth of China’s green economy.
Trevor Greene, a former Vancouver journalist, suffered a severe head injury when, as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, he was attacked by an axe-wielding teenager in an Afghan village in 2006. He has made a remarkable recovery and this month, HarperCollins released a new book by him and his wife Debbie called March Forth: The Inspiring True Story of a Canadian Soldier’s Journey of Love, Hope and Survival.
At the emotionally charged event at the library, some in the crowd, including environmentalist Valerie Langer, praised Greene for writing an opinion piece in the Toronto Star questioning tar-sands developments. In the article, Greene also condemned Conservative cabinet ministers for “attacking and smearing heroes like David Suzuki”.
Richler, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About War, spoke eloquently about Canada’s drift to becoming a more warlike nation. At one point, he had many in the crowd laughing as he discussed the Conservative government’s “almost comical” zeal to promote the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
He pointed out that this was not a war fought by Canada, though you wouldn’t know it from the government’s propaganda blitz.
“If you were to publish a book called The Party Games of the War of 1812 or The Dances of 1812 or The Recipes of 1812, you would get it published today,” Richler quipped. “A friend of mine is attending a wedding this month in Ontario that received generous funding…wholly because it was done in the costume of the era of 1812.”
Richler elicited more laughter when he pointed out that the British refer to themselves—and not Canadians—as having sacked the White House.
“I encourage the government to perhaps put 1755—the Acadian expulsion—as another example of great Canadian behaviour in which British redcoats, as Canadian as these soldiers were in 1812, perpetrated the first exercise in ethnic cleansing and sent the Acadians packing,” he said later. “Should we take pride in that, too?”
Earlier this month, scholar Daniel Tutt, who comments on Islamophobia, spoke at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. It has also hosted speaking engagements by international-affairs commentators Gwynne Dyer and Christian Parenti, among others.
On Monday (May 28), Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Richard Ford will speak at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre. And on June 3 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, celebrated writer and BBC broadcaster Kenan Malik will present the free Milton K. Wong lecture offering a European perspective on multiculturalism. It will be delivered at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
Kenan Malik delivers scathing criticism of British multiculturalism.
Every first and third Thursday of the month from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., there’s a free City Conversations series at SFU Harbour Centre. It features a panel of speakers in a brown-bag lunch format, with questions and answers afterward.
Most people don’t make connections between bricks-and-mortar and intellectual engagement. But if it weren’t for the farsighted development of the Vancouver Public Library central branch, the Chan Centre, SFU’s downtown venues at Harbour Centre and Woodward’s, and the North Shore Credit Union Centre for the Performing Arts—to name just a few—we wouldn’t be seeing such a rich offering of lectures in our city.
Many of these events are free. If you want to find out where the next ones are, just pick up the Georgia Straight print edition and look under “forums” in the Events Time Out section and “literary events” in the Arts Time Out section. You can also find them by searching the timeout database on Straight.com.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.