Events in the region

1st International Conference of Central European Canadianists

"Multiculturalism and Diversity in Canada - Voices from Central Europe"

13 - 15 November 1998

Brno, Czech Republic

Until the end of the 1980's, courses relating to Canadian Studies were only offered at a relatively few universities in the countries of what was then the Soviet bloc, and contacts between the teachers in the various countries were minimal. The period since 1989, however, has witnessed an impressive flowering of Canadian Studies in the region, and for several years now individual Canadianists have been meeting on various occasions in an effort to exchange views and improve cooperation. One recurrent suggestion was to hold an international conference of Canadianists from the region as a means not only of enabling as many academics as possible to meet each other, but also of displaying the region's strengths in the various scholarly disciplines that make up Canadian Studies. Hence the Brno conference.

The more than seventy university teachers and students present at the event came from eight countries in the region: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Yugoslavia and the Ukraine. In addition, there were distinguished speakers from Canada, a number of academics from other European countries (members of the European Network for Canadian Studies, meeting in conjunction with the conference), and the ambassadors from the Canadian embassies in Prague, Budapest (email) and Warsaw (email) as well as several representatives from their embassies. The conference sessions were also open to the public, and these attracted additional interested observers. Well over a hundred people were present for all or part of the three-day event.

At the opening session on Friday evening, the keynote address was given by the Hon. Hedy Fry, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women. In her eloquent and impassioned speech on "Cultural Pluralism in Canada", she explained the historical background to the Canadian situation, drew on her own personal experience as an individual who had chosen to immigrate to Canada precisely because of its tolerance of difference, and stressed that the creation of a multicultural society does not happen by itself, but is the result of both individual commitment and deliberate and sustained government policy. For another twenty minutes or so after her speech, Dr Fry fielded a number of questions from the audience in a lively give and take of ideas. The opening session was followed by a reception hosted by the Canadian Embassy, Prague.

The working sessions of the conference, held on Saturday and Sunday morning, were launched with a plenary session that brought together two of Canada's most distinguished scholars. Prof. Danielle Juteau of the Universite de Montreal spoke about similarities and differences in the concepts of Canadian nulticulturalism and Quebec interculturalism, while Prof. Will Kymlicka of Queen's University compared the Canadian model of multiculturalism to patterns of integration found elsewhere. The lively discussion that followed was a promising omen for the conference as a whole, which then broke into sections for the presentation of papers. These dealt with Anglophone literature, Francophone literature, and other areas in which multiculturalism and diversity play a key role - the situation of ethnic minorities, the nature of immigrant communities, the position of women, regionalism, territorial and political identities.

The variety of papers presented was remarkable: they came from scholars from throughout the region, ranging from recent graduates to senior professors, and give striking evidence of the the vigorous state of Canadian Studies in this part of Europe. Equally encouraging were the discussions that followed each session, which were by no means a formality and reflected an informed understanding of the topics being debated. Altogether thirty-five papers were presented at the conference.

At the final plenary session on Sunday, panelists from the different countries represented at the conference made brief presentations outlining the background to Canadian Studies in their respective countries, and the prospects for future developments. Additional comments came from those in the audience. In this way, all the participants were able to get a sense of the broader picture of Canadian Studies in Central Europe and pick up suggestions for ways in which to move forward in developing the discipline.

The only break in the conference sessions came on Saturday after dinner. In the first part of the evening, students from Lajos Kossuth University in Debrecen, Hungary, presented a sparkling performance of Gwen Pharis Ringwood's one-acter Red Flag at Evening, an amusing satire on a horrendously stodgy Canadian type - the archetypal WASP - that one can only hope is now largely a phenomenon of the past. This was followed by a very different experience - the screening of Stowaways, a feature film by Denis Chouinard (Canada) and Nicolas Wadimoff (Switzerland). This very disturbing film, which depicts the tragic fate of a mixed group of illegal immigrants attempting to reach Canada, was a sombre reminder of one aspect of the reality behind the phenomenon of multiculturalism in the contemporary world.

In addition to providing a forum where Canadianists from Central Europe could present papers in their areas of specialization, the conference was intended to offer opportunities for individual scholars from the region to meet each other, discuss common issues, and devise ways of increasing cooperation. The many intensive discussions that went on throughout the event were clear proof that this aim was being met. Of particular help in this regard were two guests from Ottawa who were present at the conference, Marie-Laure de Chantal, Programme Manager at the International Academic Relations Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and Alain Guimont, Executive Director of the International Council for Canadian Studies, both of whom held special sessions with the participants in order to explain programmes and support schemes and suggest practical ways in which these could best be used.

The Brno conference was billed as the first gathering of its kind for Central European Canadianists. The expertise they showed in their papers and in the course of the discussions as well as the keen interest that was expressed in continuing to expand activities in the field augur well for the future of Canadian Studies in the region in the coming years. We hope the second international conference of Central European Canadianists will follow soon.

In closing, I should like to thank those organizations and individuals who did so much to make the conference possible. First and foremost comes the Government of Canada, through the International Academic Relations Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Great help, especially in connection with the visit of the Hon. Hedy Fry, came from the Canadian Embassy in Prague and Ambassador Ronald Halpin, Political Affairs Officer Alain Latulippe, and Public Affairs Officer Lucie Cermakova. The Association of Canadian Studies in the German-speaking Countries was very generous in covering the costs of bringing one speaker, Ms Judy Young, to the conference. Travel costs for participants were partly covered by the Central European Travel Fund, administered by the Canadian Embassy in Vienna. Steady support for the event was offered by the European Network for Canadian Studies and its convenor, Cornelius Remie. Masaryk University and the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University provided support in a number of ways. Finally, my personal thanks go to two groups of individuals without whom the conference would have been far less successful. First, the other members of the steering committee, who helped in the planning of the conference: Katalin Kurtosi, Monica Bottez and Anna Reczynska. And second, Anna Vanickova and her team of students from the English Department of Masaryk University, whose work behind the scenes made the conference itself run so smoothly: Pavel Drabek, Tomas Knaibl, Soolima Kourdi, Tomas Prokes, Vladimir Sida, Jan Tilser and Hana Zizkova

Don Sparling
Conference convenor