The Burnaby Festival of Learning

Why a learning festival?

Learning festivals have been held around the world, from Singapore to Scotland, for different reasons.

ATD Fourth World (All Together in Dignity to Overcome Poverty) supports festivals of learning as a means of bringing ideas and educational activities to people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to access them. Its website notes that “During a Festival of Learning, parks and streets are transformed and everyone comes together for painting, computer activities, games, theater, poetry, photography, and more.”  In 2017, festivals of art and learning were held in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and many other countries. Other festivals of learning are held to encourage continuing education for adult workers (as in the United Kingdom’s Festival of Learning) or to share ideas among professionals as in BCcampus’s “biennial, three-day celebration of teaching and learning in post-secondary education.”

The Burnaby Festival of Learning was first conceived as a way to celebrate Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) 50th anniversary in 2016 by highlighting SFU’s educational contributions to Burnaby.  Joanne Curry, Vice President of External Relations, had recently visited Cork, Ireland where they have been holding a week-long festival of learning for 14 years and she was excited about the prospect of creating something similar in Burnaby.  The current president of SFU, Andrew Petter, had a strong focus on community engagement and this initiative was a perfect way to celebrate the university’s academic roots and achievements as well as the other kinds of learning available in the city of Burnaby. In the fall of 2014, SFU Library contacted Burnaby Public Library (BPL) to co-chair the steering/planning committee.  BPL was also focusing more strongly on community engagement and we willingly agreed to help lead the planning effort.

Over the next year and a half, planning continued with staff from both libraries, various City departments, School District 41, and SFU faculties. And the first Burnaby Festival of Learning was held in the first week of May 2016.

Structure and Funding

Three major events anchor the Festival – the Rhododendron Festival at the city’s Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and surrounding Deer Lake Park on Sunday, an Exploration Day at SFU in mid-week where secondary school students have the opportunity to sample University courses and subjects, and Science Rendezvous, a day of fun and education about science for Burnaby families held on the closing Saturday. In 2018, a sold-out Pecha Kucha evening at Shadbolt was added as an opening event. The rest of the events at the festivals were a combination of annual or regularly planned events that fell within the Learning Festival week and events that were created just for the Festival. A benefit of this approach and the resulting cross promotion to different constituencies is that Burnaby residents are offered a sampling of learning events that occur throughout the year in Burnaby as well as experiencing special events only offered at the festival.

While the funding for the first two years came from SFU’s 50th anniversary funds, as of 2018 the Festival is jointly funded by the City of Burnaby (1/3) and SFU (2/3) with BPL holding and distributing the City funds. The majority (about 75%) of the event venues are within the City in keeping with the desire to bring the knowledge and research of SFU faculty down from Burnaby Mountain and into the community.  

The initial planning committee in 2015/16 included City departments from Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services (Burnaby Art Gallery, Burnaby Village Museum, Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, PRCS Marketing) in addition to BPL and a large number of SFU Faculty. Over the next few festivals, SFU Faculty gradually dropped off, devoting their energies chiefly to the Exploration Day as its scope expanded.  In late 2018, as the steering committee grew, a decision was made to divide the steering committee into three committees: a small governance committee, an Exploration Day committee made up exclusively of SFU and School District 41 representatives, and a large planning committee including all partners participating in the main program.

Festival highlightsanalog-library-poster


In the inaugural 2016 Festival, 49 events were offered for the general public and an additional 16 events were offered to secondary students as part of the Exploration Day. Events ranged from very popular sessions on forensic entomology, coding for kids, a history of Oakalla Prison, and the brewing of beer to more academic sessions abou modern medievalism and modern communication.  One particularly well-attended event (over 200 people over the course of an afternoon) was the Analog Library, a collaboration between BPL and Burnaby Village Museum that showcased technology of the last 100 years. This event drew people of all ages and allowed generations to share their experiences of the technology that was and is part of their lives.

What was clear from the interest and enthusiasm of local residents was that this was a welcomed initiative. Attendance was not tracked at any but BPL sponsored events but the overall impression was that many events were well-attended and even the more esoteric events were enjoyed by the smaller numbers who attended. However, we had yet to connect deeply with a broad range of Burnaby residents, including low-income individuals and families, seniors, youth and newcomers.


In 2017, the Festival was launched under the theme “Learning from the Past to Inform the Future.” SFU’s Office of Community Engagement took over from the SFU Library to provide a co-chair. The steering committee members were feeling a little tired after the high level of activity in the previous year (it was also BPL’s 60th anniversary) and this festival lacked some of the enthusiasm and energy of the previous year but we still managed to offer 76 events (37 main program and 39 for the Exploration Day) attended by over 10,250 people.


Thanks to the expertise of SFU’s Office of Community Engagement staff, both promotional efforts and analytics to evaluate the success of the events were greatly improved. Highlights were a session in Indigenous Archaeology at the Burnaby Village Museum, a Retro Painting Party (fashioned after Bob Ross of TV fame) at the Cameron branch of BPL, readings with Aaron Chapman, author of Last Gang in Town, at the Tommy Douglas and McGill branches of BPL, a community wellness fair, the BC Heritage Fair, and a skytrain tour of the history of Burnaby.

This festival also encountered some controversy when City of Burnaby senior managers expressed concerns about a proposed SFU City Conversation about development in Burnaby’s Metrotown neighbourhood, planned for BPL’s Metrotown branch.  The new Metrotown Development Plan had recently been rolled out in public meetings that had often been characterized by testy exchanges and protests about housing affordability and “demovictions,” and managers were concerned about using city facilities for an event that had the potential to rekindle antagonistic debate. The organizers strongly believed that offering the event at SFU’s Burnaby Mountain campus would dilute the impact of the event and the ability of low-income residents to attend, and decided not to hold the event at all.


The Festival continued to grow this year with over 17,500 people attending 96 events (46 main program, 50 Exploration Day). Three community groups – Burnaby Family Life, Burnaby Neighbourhood House, Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table –  and the BC Institute of Technology (BCIT) joined the steering committee and added new energy as well as broadening the scope and reach of the festival. The City of Burnaby’s newly formed Marketing and Communications department assisted SFU’s Community Engagement staff with promotions.

bfol18_digital_1280x720The theme for this year was Learn, Grow and Thrive with a focus on health. Burnaby Neighbourhood House worked with the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts to organize the highly successful Pecha Kucha opening event which included the SFU Symphony Orchestra and food and drinks from Deer Lake Catering.  The ten short presentations ranged from how to live with zero waste to very personal stories about recovering from loss and coming to terms with body image.

Thanks to the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table, a number of events were held that explored the experiences of being Muslim and the roots of Islamophobia, including a session called Can a Strong Community Prevent Youth Radicalization? The Burnaby Village Museum offered a popular Cultural Cooks Tour at the Crystal Mall Market in Metrotown. BCIT offered its own modest version of SFU’s Exploration Day called Experience BCIT where secondary students got to test out diagnostic medical equipment, work on a sheet metal project, and experience virtual reality, and for the general public, a Virtual and Augmented Reality Expo. The Burnaby Art Gallery hosted an Arts Alive Exhibition Tour (very well attended!). Embark’s Learning Garden showed participants how to make simple soil blocks.  BPL offered a reading and talk with Desiree Neilsen, author of Unjunk Your Diet. Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology showed three films featuring women in STEM with the aim of encouraging more girls to go into STEM careers.

Controversy over the same topic of Metrotown development occurred again in 2018, with City management again concerned about hosting a City Conversations event called From Suburb to Metropolis: Burnaby in Transition which was presented by Andy Yan, Director of SFU’s City Program. Originally intended to be held at the BPL’s Metrotown branch, in the end the event went ahead at a nearby Holiday Inn.


As I move into retirement, I am passing on the co-chair role for BPL to the new Assistant Director of Public Services.  

A request was made in the fall for 3-year funding and approvals for free venues from the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Commission were submitted in the fall. The funding was recently approved by the City.

Planning is well underway for the fourth Festival of Learning that will be held in the first week of May in 2019.  Burnaby Community Services and the settlement agency MOSAIC have joined in the planning of the festival and the Burnaby Board of Trade has expressed some interest in contributing an event. With the expanding number of planning partners the challenge for this year’s planning committee will be to achieve a delicate balance between providing a variety and quantity of events that will interest a wide range of Burnaby residents, while not offering too many events in a single week for each to get reasonable attendance. At the same time, the contributions of the community partners are helping to expand both the reach and scope of the Festival’s offerings – connecting with seniors, youth, and newcomers – groups that early festivals didn’t reach as successfully. With these new partners, the Festival is achieving its goals of introducing Burnaby residents to the various learning opportunities available in the City – during the Festival and throughout the year.

Deb Thomas has worked in libraries for over 40 years and has recently retired for her position as Deputy Chief Librarian of Burnaby Public Library. She has had a strong commitment throughout her career to collaboration between libraries. She co-chaired the Burnaby Festival of Learning’s Steering Committee for its first three years