More than fourteen hundred people participated in the thirty-sixth conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies (ABS) in Montreal, August 9–12. The conference, which took place midway through the centennial commemoration of the visit to North America of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Head of the Baha’i Faith at that time, took as its theme “The Vision of ‘Abdu’l-Baha for North America”.
Montreal was the only Canadian city ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited during his trip to North America. His talks in Montreal, as elsewhere, covered a range of issues of widespread public concern, and were directly related to Baha’i principles and teachings – from the importance of the rights of women and the need to eliminate prejudice and racism, to the elements essential to a new vision of education, and the necessary foundations if justice and peace is to effectively characterize a world civilization.
The conference’s preliminary day was devoted to sessions on a variety of subjects: How to achieve equilibrium between university studies and Baha’i service, the significance of passages in recent letters of the Universal House of Justice to an understanding of the process and dynamics of learning, the generation and application of knowledge in advancing the building of communities, and the moral challenge of an economic system burdened by self-interest and inequities.
The conference opened officially Thursday evening with a keynote address by Douglas Martin. He reviewed the purposes and history of the Association for Baha’i Studies from the perspective of someone who was a member of the original committee and the National Assembly of Canada, which launched the Association in the 1970s. He challenged ABS to reflect on its purpose, taking into account current conditions, both in the Baha’i community and the world – conditions that are more challenging than those prevailing 35 years earlier when the Association first emerged as a vital and creative element of Baha’i community life.
Many of the subjects addressed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha in his talks in North America were reflected in the plenary and breakout sessions of the ABS conference. Paramount among them was the concept of justice. The focus of several presentations, it was a theme addressed directly by two speakers prominent in Canadian public life: Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former Minister of Justice, and Louise Mandell, a lawyer and well-known West Coast Aboriginal rights advocate. They spoke with passion and brought to their presentations a lifetime of experience in human rights work, in using the law to redress injustice, and in challenging government policy and legislation to serve the best interests of those affected by the forces of injustice and mistreatment.
Both provided compelling reasons why genuine reconciliation and the establishment of justice now demand greater attention to the more intimate and challenging work of rebuilding human relationships on the basis of love and mutual regard across historical barriers of injustice and ignorance.
Friday morning started with a presentation by Louise Mandell whose advocacy work in advancing the rights of Aboriginal peoples represents a remarkable contribution to Canadian public life. After so many years of working at the front lines of legal efforts to change society, she made the point that law and legislation is ineffective unless there is also commitment by all citizens in their personal, family and community lives to contribute more to reconciliation.
Her account of the history of the struggle for justice in the face of appalling injustice and suffering endured by the country’s first inhabitants closed with an appeal for all to continue that struggle in ways that would lay a foundation of love and trust among all who consider Canada their home.
Friday afternoon’s sixteen breakout sessions, involving more than 35 presenters, addressed topics as varied as science and religion, education, reconciliation, storytelling, economics, history, international affairs, business and the arts. All sessions were well attended, and the enthusiasm and discussions they generated spilled out into the hallways. One of the topics was an exploration of the challenge the Universal House of Justice issued to the Baha’i community at Ridvan (April) 2012 regarding the need to identify the assumptions that underlie dysfunctional institutions and practices, including economic institutions and practices, and which call for a more robust moral and spiritual response.
Friday evening’s plenary session was devoted to the presentation of a number of awards for distinguished scholarship and included an uplifting musical gala.
Justice was again the focus of Saturday morning’s session. A thorough examination was made of the exclusion, inequity and sectarianism that once characterized Quebec’s educational system, and which has evolved somewhat during the intervening decades since ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit in ways that reflect a more universal and equitable vision. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s conviction that the people of Quebec were open to and accepting of all, an opinion not widely shared at the time of His visit, is evident in the efforts Quebec has undertaken to remodel its school system, among other aspects of its society, in order to move towards a more open, just and pluralistic system of education.
The thoroughness of the review relied on three outstanding Laval University scholars: Claire Lapointe, professor and director of its Department of Educational Foundations, Luc Bégin, a professor of philosophy and director of the Institute d’éthique appliquée, and professor of Industrial Relations Lyse Langlois, whose presentation addressed an element that could complement and more adequately complete the province’s overly secular educational initiatives. She gave evidence of the enormous potential to generate among young adolescents a sense of service to others and the community through the spiritual and moral transformation that lies at the heart of the Baha’i approach to education.
The Saturday morning session featured a talk by Professor Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former Minister of Justice and current Member of Parliament for Mont Royal. He gave a first-person account of the history of contemporary human rights that spanned the struggle for justice for those living in poverty, efforts to help dissidents before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the impact of the Helsinki Accords, his first encounters with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples as Justice Minister, and the principles of justice that he strove to apply in that position and throughout his career as an advocate for those suffering from injustice. He ended his talk with a discussion of the efforts to advance justice in the Middle East, referencing the current injustice and oppression experienced by the people of Iran, including members of the Baha’i community.
A highlight of every ABS Conference, the Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture was delivered Saturday evening by Dr. Shapour Rassekh, author, consultant to UNESCO. He presented a well-researched, comprehensive and penetrating talk on ‘Abdu’l-Baha, focusing on the central purpose and achievement of his visit to the West: establishing world peace and a new civilization.
The conference concluded on Sunday, as all the sessions had opened, with an abundance of prayers, music and joy. Counsellor Ann Boyles spoke at the end of a session that examined justice and other key features of the Baha’i ethos at a more intimate level, through glimpses of the life of the African-American Louis Gregory, a presentation on the writing of the story of Jim and Melba Loft – the first Aboriginal Baha’i individual and family in Canada – and a description of the lengthy but promising development of the francophone Baha’i community of Canada. Dr. Boyles` talk reviewed in eloquent terms the meanings and central importance of three simple, but not so simple, words: capacity, effort and magnanimity.