Joanne Brown Symposium on Violence and its Alternatives

Bowen Island Retreat

Joanne Brown (1918–2003) was a social worker, an advocate for children and of lifelong learning, and an active supporter of the CCF/NDP. Toward the end of her life, she gave a generous endowment to the Institute for the Humanities to financially support an annual symposium that would bring together an interdisciplinary group of individuals in an informal setting to discuss how various forms of violence may be alleviated.

Past Symposiums

2023: 40th Anniversary Conference: Apocalyptic Anxieties  

Over three days and six panel discussions, this conference that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Institute for the Humanities, will draw upon critical and political theory and psychoanalysis to examine the nature of apocalyptic anxieties and what can be done to ameliorate and transform them. The idea that the world is doomed and might soon end has existed from time immemorial and has been entertained by humans in every historical period. From the Greek “apokaluptein,” the English word "apocalypse," means "uncovering" or "revelation" and, in its original usage, refers to a religious or spiritual disclosure, often involving the revelation of divine Truth in an “event” of destruction, upheaval and collapse. The present fear of the end of human civilization and the natural world is, however, distinct from all previous historical epochs in that the condition of our planet––as ascertained by environmental, geographical and climate sciences––is unprecedented.

2022: Democratic Socialism and Civilizational Crisis Conference

Over two days and four panel discussions, the conference explored the role democratic socialism could have in addressing our current situation. Environmental crisis, climate emergency, pandemics, neofascism, unjust and destabilizing inequalities, and the escalating threat of nuclear war pose existential challenges to global civilization. It seems clear that that the gaps between party politics, social movements and intellectual life have widened, and that the political system is not responding adequately. In that light, can the practices and philosophy of democratic socialism offer a way forward? Does the project of democratic socialism require radical renewal if it is to have any relevance today? How do we address the legacy of colonialism? What could the future of democratic socialism look like? These questions will be addressed by activists, academics and parliamentarians in the form of discussion and debate from a variety of perspectives.  

2019: Resisting State Violence and the Violence of Capital

The 2019 symposium explored various modes of systemic violence—of the collusion of state and capital to dispossess, extract, and demolish lives, communities, and living systems in the name of accumulation—as well as the possibilities for refuge and resistance, at a time when most elected governments now seem little more than wholly-owned subsidiaries of private corporations. Participants considered biotartian resistance from within various state institutional structures, including the carceral industrial complex, the border matrix, ongoing colonial policies, and the seemingly intimate spaces of social reproduction. As the scale and speed of the Anthropocene becomes clear, what is the work of “witnessing” now? What is the work of art and culture—of the humanities, broadly conceived—at this historical juncture? How do literary works continue to offer critique and a capacity to resist?

2018: One Hundred Years Later: The Great War

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the J.S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities, Dr. Eleanor Stebner, invited participants from different areas of expertise to reflect on the Great War and how it is still with us 100 years later. The symposium provided a forum for participants to think about ways to resist war, and to ponder how to engage in peace education in the broadest sense, drawing primarily from the disciplines of peace studies, literature, history, art, and psychology. The symposium started with Eleanor providing some historical context and talking specifically about how the 19th and early 20th century international peace movements were shattered by the outbreak of war and dissenting voices were silenced. Eleanor's introduction was followed by a film screening of “Testament of Youth” (2015) and subsequent group discussion. The next day, keynotes were given by Michael Kenny and June Sturrock on “The Collective Memory of War” (with a response by Stephen Collis) and “The Afterlife of War,” respectively, and shorter presentations were given by Anne-Marie Feenberg (“Art and the Great War”), Larry Green (“Grief and Trauma”), Ian Angus (“International Labour/Socialist/Workers’ Movements”), and Cameron Duncan (“From Memory to History: To be 100 Years After”).

2017: Spectacle of Fascism

The 2017 Joanne Brown Symposium fund was used to help finance the conference on Spectacle of Fascism, which marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the key texts of the Situationist International: Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. In addition to the conference, an artist residency, titled Beyond Spectacle, and public free school, titled Spectre of Fascism, were also organized to celebrate this anniversary. The conference, itself, hosted four keynotes (Jen Kennedy, Anselm Jappe, Thomas Y. Levin, and Serge Guilbaut) from around the world and sixteen panelists who addressed the following topics: 1) subjectivity (Clint Burnham, Donia Mounsef, and Hilda Fernandez); 2) separation anxiety (Johan Hartle, Surti Singh, and Shazia Hafiz Ramji); 3) art as political and privileged practice (Jennifer Stob, Heath Schultz, and Jeremy Todd); 4) domination, displacement, and deflection (Samir Gandesha, Jaleh Mansoor, and Charles Reeve); and 5) organizing resistance (Victoria Scott, Bruce Baugh, Philip Wohlstetter, and Deblekha Guin). In addition to lectures and panels, the conference also featured artist interventions, a flamenco performance, and film screenings, including Society of the Spectacle, the 2013 reworking of Dubord's 1973 film of the same name.

2016: The Violence of Detention: Borders, Security, and the Search for Refuge

Unlike previous years, the 2016 Joanne Brown Symposium was held later in the fiscal year ending March 2017. The funds were used to cosponsor the "Violence of Detention" full-day symposium, which addressed the state of, resistance to, and connections between the egregious migrant detention processes in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., focusing on efforts to change detention policy, support detainees, and alter the culture of policed borders in an era of increasing human mobility. The day’s events feature: a) a panel discussion with Robyn Maynard, Silky Shah, and Harsha Walia; b) a presentation about the “Refugee Tales” project in the U.K. by David Herd; and c) a workshop organized by Ayendri Perera and members of End Detention Vancouver.

2015: The State of Extraction: Corporate Imperatives, Public Knowledge and Global Struggles for Alternatives

The funds for the 2015 annual Joanne Brown Symposium went to cosponsoring "The State of Extraction" conference, which highlighted the structural and systemic violence of extractionism, as well as its impact on affected communities. The goal of the conference was to bring together indigenous leadership, academics, scientists, artists, activists, and public intellectuals from a variety of disciplines to examine the new face of resource capitalism in Canada and its influence on the world, with special attention to alternative models oriented towards social and environmental justice. The intention was thus to move through the full range of issues: from the economics and politics of mining, through its varied social and ecological impacts, across the terrain of social struggle and public debate, to the various alternatives to fossil fuels and current mining practices.

2013: Psychoanalysis and Social Theory: From Clinical practice to Social and Political Praxis

Starting with Freud and moving from Ferenczi, Fromm, and Lacan to contemporary relational psychoanalysis and hermeneutics, the 2013 symposium revisited and challenged standard definitions of psychoanalysis. Using the format of a workshop to encourage audience participation, the symposium presented a diversity of viewpoints on the social, political and psychological fabric of human beings and the multiple contexts in which we live and act. Invited speakers included John Abromeit, Philip Cushman, Jay Frankel, Roger Frie, Hilda Fernandez, Christopher Fortune, Samir Gandesha (Director of the Institute for the Humanities), Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, and Jerry Zaslove.

2012: Place and Dis-Placement

Invited presenters included Chinmoy Banerjee, Samir Gandesha (Director of the Institute for the Humanities), and Ian Angus, with responses by Sourayan Mookerjea, Sophie McCall, Peyman Vahabzadeh, Jerry Zaslove, Gregory Cameron, and Smaro Kamboureli.

2009: Peace and Social Change: Pondering the Texts and Ideas of Select Nobel Peace Laureates

The fifth symposium was organized by Eleanor Stebner (J. S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities since 2005) and meant to gather together an interdisciplinary group of individuals to discuss several of the significant texts written by select Nobel Peace laureates. The chosen texts addressed ideas regarding militarism, humanitarianism, human and civil rights, religion, environmentalism, and so on, and have been amazingly powerful in creating public awareness and, in some cases, have facilitated movements of social change. Invited presenters included Maurice Hamington (Democracy and Social Ethics, by Jane Adams), Wayne Knights (Memoir of Solferino, by Henri Dunant), June Sturrock (Lay Down Your Arms, by Bertha von Suttner), Michael Kenny (No More War, by Linus Pauling), Jerry Zaslove (Night, by Elie Wiesel), Barbara Smith (Stride Toward Freedom, by Martin Luther King, Jr.), Trish Graham (I, Rigoberta Menchu, by Rigoberta Menchu), Steve Duguid (The Philosophy of Civilization, by Albert Schweitzer), Pearl Hunt (Hope and Suffering, by Desmond Tutu), and Larry Green (Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi). Information on the Nobel Peace prize can be found at

2003: Exile as a Response to Violence and as an Alternative to Violence

Participants gathered to explore issues related to "Exile as a Response to Violence and as an Alternative to Violence." Invited speakers included David Kettler, from Bard College, and formerly Professor of Political Science at Trent, who delivered a presentation on the German-speaking exile as a contemporary paradigm, and Martha Langford. Martha Langford has published on memory, displacement, and the photographic representation of memory. She and Jerry Zaslove (Emeritus, Director of the Institute for the Humanities) made presentations on the consequences of Vietnam draft resisters on the art, culture, and society of Vancouver and Canada.

2002: Technology and Violence

In the third annual Joanne Brown symposium to take place on Bowen Island in October of 2002, 16 participants gathered to explore issues related to "Technology and Violence." Invited presenters included Richard Lee, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, Joy Parr, holder of the Farley Chair and a member of the Department of the Humanities, and Robert Menzies of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University.

2001: Violence and Poesis

The 2001 symposium featured Stephen K. Levine from the faculty of Social Science and the program in Social and Political Thought, York University. Professor Levine brings a background in social thought, arts therapy, philosophy, and anthropology to the questions of violence and poesis in the arts and trauma in life. His background in poetics and the theatre provided a foundation for fifteen invited academics, psychologists, and social praxis individuals to discuss violence and its alternatives.

2000: Systemic Violence: An Interdisciplinary and Comparative Approach to Understanding, Experiencing and Responding to Violence

The first of what is to be an annual "Joanne Brown Symposium" (named for a generous benefactor of the Institute for the Humanities) was held at The Lodge at the Old Dorm on Bowen Island. Thirteen people attented the symposium. Three individuals were asked to prepare papers: John O'Neill from York University (Sociology), WolfDieter-Narr from the Free University of Berlin, and Debra Pepler from York University (Director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution). These papers, along with the Introduction to the seminar by Jerry Zaslove (Institute for the Humanities, SFU), provided the substance around which the discussion and debate took place. The format meant that each paper could be presented and discussed at length, and the speakers had the opportunity to prepare responses to the discussion. Two points seemed to be salient in terms of where the Symposium should go in its commitment to engaging with the issue of systemic violence. First, there was the feeling that such a phenomenon cannot be understood in the abstract. While it is important that we attempt to create and sustain a theoretical perspective on violence, that attempt needs to be enriched by analyses of specific types or case studies. Second, we must be aware of the danger that 'understanding' violence can often lead to excusing or condoning it and, hence, the very practice of studying violence with the aim of understanding can have violent implications.