International Conference of Secular AA – Toronto


By Joe C.

ICSAA History and Future

The first gathering of secular AA members was in Santa Monica California from a Thursday to Saturday in November of 2014. Anyone of the 300 in attendance were welcome to participate in the business meeting which would discuss how we would conduct ourselves going forward including how often we would gather and where we would meet next. By vote, Austin Texas was chosen for the 2016 gathering where over 400 attended. Toronto was selected in Austin to host this year’s gathering, August 24-26.

The location of the next International Conference of Secular AA will be decided by those in attendance in Toronto. The AA members of any community that can accommodate a gathering of 500ish can bid to host the next ICSAA. You will need to form a host committee, but you will also have the guidance of the Secular AA Board of Directors (a rotating board). Help is close at hand. Willingness is more of a virtue than expertise. Anyone interested in bidding for the 2020 conference or any future ICSAA can get more information by emailing Martin.

Our 2014 gathering was called We Agnostics & Freethinkers International AA Conference. The 2014 business meeting added, “atheist;” in Austin we were We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Conference (WAAFTIAAC). Several names were floated in Austin and the majority voted to identify in keeping with other international gatherings such as ICYPAA (Young People), ILAA (Lawyers in AA) and IDAA (Doctors in AA).

Two Months To Go

Want to see the agenda (speakers, panels and workshops) of the conference? Click on the image above.

ICSAA 2018 will be at the Marriott Downtown Toronto Eaton Centre Hotel, (Bay/Dundas Street). Plenty of online discussions/chats have already been posted and are still being commented on regarding the program for the International Conference of Secular AA. I won’t spend a lot of time on the program lineup. Dr. Ray B (Vancouver), Deirdre S (New York City) and Dr. Vera T (Toronto) are keynote speakers. I attended the June 20, host committee meeting and I have the latest, hot-off-the-press.

The cost of ICSAA is $125 Canadian for each attendee. “Over $100 of that is food costs,” Treasurer Nigel points out. Registration includes lunch on Saturday, brunch on Sunday and a couple of coffee/tea/cookie breaks. We wish it could be free for everyone, but there are costs that must be met. From Austin’s 2016 gathering there was a clear message to have Toronto’s ICSAA downtown and we’ve done the best we can to contain costs.

We want everyone to attend who feels the need to be there. Some members have donated extra to go towards scholarships for those of us in financial distress. We can’t accommodate every request so here’s the fairest thing we can do: If you want to qualify for the lottery, send your information to Conference Lottery before July 23rd. A few pre-paid registrations will be awarded by lottery thanks to the generous donations of other members.

“Also, we decided Friday is free!” Martin announced, putting the “free” in freethinkers. We want everyone to come for the whole weekend, but we don’t want to turn anyone away. Our opening session is from 7 PM until whenever: be our guest. We will have an around the world of secular AA members coming up to the mic for 10-15-minute shares. Of course, registration is open Friday evening for anyone who wants to get a weekend pass.

“Inclusion and Diversity is out theme this year” Martin adds, “We’d like all AAs in the Greater Toronto Area to feel included and we invite everyone to join us for fellowship Friday August 24th.”

How may will be in Toronto? “This close to the Austin conference,” Nigel notes, “they had 255 registered; we have 155 registered with sixty days to go. We expect a more intimate gathering than in Texas.”

“Let people know that if they’re coming, register now,” Carol, host-chair added. “We need to plan for food and room-sizes, so while we can take registration at the hotel, the day of the conference, we can’t feed anyone who isn’t pre-registered because the kitchen staff needs a week’s notice for our attendees. Also, the early-bird price of $125 (Canadian) goes up to $150 on July 24th. If you’re coming, save yourself some money and help us plan by registering as soon as possible.”

The Canadian Dollar and other considerations for visitors to Canada

Current currency conversion (before bank commissions) fluctuate. For instance, $100 USD over the last 90 days has converted in the $125 to $130 range. At August 21, for $1.00 CDN = $0.75 USD, €0.66 EUR, £0.57 GBP $1.02 AUD ¥82.62 JPY. Check with your bank before you leave but I expect most ATMs will accept your bank card and give you money in $CDN. The machine will charge a small fee and your bank will charge a commission on the conversion rate.

The Hotel room rate for our gathering is $220 CDN. If you’re coming by car, self-parking at the Hotel will be between $25-35 per day. There is a valet option, too. That’s not bad for downtown parking rates; there may be better deals around if your looking to save.

Is our hotel rate a bargain? I just checked for our ICSAA hotel Marriott Downtown at CF Toronto Eaton Centre (Bay and Dundas), Toronto and the range is $344 to $375 (CDN) for the same weekend.

For travelers on a budget, I know a couple of back-packers hostel that are within a 20-minute walk to the conference hotel, ranging from $88 to $140/night right now. Neill-Wycik Backpackers (Yonge & Gerrard) is a Ryerson University dorm from September to May and through the summer is available to rent to travelers. Ryerson is just one subway stop or a 15-minute walk from our hotel. Kensington College backpackers is in funky Kensington Market and is 20 to 30 minutes walking or a 15-minute public transit commute to our Marriott Hotel.

Some food is provided with your registration. But for people who prefer to eat in vs. restaurant fare, there are several groceries stores close by. Any committee member can help direct you once you get here.

Getting money back from your travel to Canada: HST stands for Harmonized Sales Tax (Federal and Provincial). In Ontario, it’s 13% added to just about everything you buy from the conference registration and hotel to meals, souvenirs or events. Some of these taxes paid can be rebated if you apply. Request a rebate from the Canada Revenue Agency within one year of purchases. You need to get receipts to apply for the rebate.

How are you travelling to Toronto?

By Bus: the bus terminal is a block from the hotel; how about that!

By train: you’ll pull into Union Station. From there, you could walk up Bay Street and be at the Marriott in under 20 minutes. It’s a short cab ride or via public transit, you can take the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) Bay St. bus ride N to Dundas or three stops N on the subway (either Dundas or St. Patrick).

By air: If you’re flying in into YYZ (Toronto Pearson International Airport), you’re 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the hotel. You can Uber or cab it. There is a frequent train service UP Express – every 15 minutes, for $12.35 adult, $25.70 family and $6.20 for seniors (65+). It takes 40 minutes to get to Union Station and then you’d follow the train instructions to get to the Marriott.

Public Transit (TTC) has an express bus from the airport to Kipling subway station (end of the subway line) and you can subway within a couple blocks of the hotel in an hour and 11 minutes (total trip) for $3.25 Canadian (this is your best insider-knowledge). Take the 192 Bus. You’ll need Canadian money and the driver doesn’t give change. You can purchase single fare tickets at Toronto Pearson International Airport. For Terminal 1, there are two TTC ticket vending machines located at the Public Transit area of the Ground Transportation Level, just inside from where the TTC buses stop (curbside, at column “R”). In Terminal 3, you can purchase single fare tickets at the Currency Exchange counter located on the arrivals level.


Your mobile phone provider may or may not extend service to you while you’re in Canada. There could be roaming charges added to your bill from surfing the net on your mobile device. The Marriott has complementary Wi-Fi for guests of the hotel. You can turn the cellular data off on your mobile device and log onto the free Wi-Fi. Like most international airports, YYZ has complementary Wi-Fi and many coffee shops and gathering places in Toronto offer the same.

Saturday Night

Everyone wanted our hotel to be right downtown and so it is. A dance, live music, poetry have all been bandied around but right now it looks like we’re leaving Saturday evening open for field-trips. Go out on your own or there will be a few guided trips.

“I’m going to the Ex” Faye declared. “Anyone can come with me; it’s a blast if you like this kind of thing.” The Canadian National Exhibition starts well before our conference and runs through to the first weekend in September. It’s the 91st anniversary of the “Tilt-a-Whirl.” The world’s largest indoor lantern festival, rides for kids or adults. Music on Saturday night includes, Blood Sweat and Tears, playing with American Idol winner Bo Brice fronting the band.

“It’s so tacky it’s wonderful,” Faye says. Faye will be the prefect host.

At the time of writing, the second largest Pride celebration in the world is happening in Toronto. The LGBTQ hood (Church St/Wellesley) is two subway stops or a 15-minute walk and dancing, dining, cafes and mingling are close by.

Yonge/Dundas Square (one block away), Saturday (and Sunday) from 11 AM to 11 PM is The Pan American Food & Music Festival (PAFMF). It is Canada’s only annual festival that celebrates the Western Hemisphere’s rich diversity of cuisine, music and art. This free event that brings together Canada and the 40 other countries of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean is presented annually in Toronto to reinforce the city’s cultural diversity.

China Town is walking distance from the hotel (Dundas/Spadina). Also, in walking distance Ethiopian, Indian, Vegan, Thai, Greek, Italian, as well as a Taco stand, sushi, falafel, pizza, poutine, food trucks, fast-food outlets and fine-dining.

For those who hurry from the close off Saturday at ICSAA (6 PM), we’re a quick subway ride to Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers regular 6:30 PM discussion group at St. George Subway Station. For anyone who wants to visit Canada’s longest running secular AA meeting, there are plenty of restaurants to try out, nearby, after the meeting.

Toronto Harbourfront. All weekend there will be indoor/outdoor fashion, music, food and art celebrating Taiwan, The Philippines and Canada across mainstream, niche and Indigenous cultures! Also, for $10 per person, you can Paddleboat (11 AM to 8 PM) in a large pond right by Lake Ontario.

“I would take anyone who wants to go on a photography tour,” Nigel offered. “There are some great shots and great views of the city if people want to site-see Saturday night (or Friday during the day).”

Toronto Theatre. There will be lots of offerings, but some things are best ordered in advance. Come From Away is a 9-11 story with a Canadian twist. Now playing on Broadway, this touching musical celebrating the strength of human compassion makes a welcome return to Toronto in 2018, a year after its pre-New York run! Created by Canadian husband and wife team Irene Snakoff and David Hein, the rippling impact of 9/11 across the world is felt in a Newfoundland town, when no less than 38 transatlantic flights are ordered to land. Tickets start at $200.

Other biking and walking expeditions are being discussed for Friday during the day, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon/evening too.

If partners and/or kids are coming, the Blue Jays are playing all weekend long at Rogers Centre or for a finer pallet Shakespeare is being performed outdoors in High Park.

If you are not On To Toronto… We will try a few ways to bring the conference to you. There’s nothing like being there. Santa Monica and Austin (2014 and 2018) are etched into my memory as peak-experiences and maybe life-altering isn’t too farfetched. We will do our best to bring some of ICSAA 2018 to the Internet. John S and I will live-stream one or two meetings on Facebook.

Go there and like the page now to make it easy to find, if you’re on Facebook. Even if you’re not, you might be able to watch if you’re online, looking at the page. You won’t see people (the camera will be faced away) but you’ll hear it. Also some of the meetings will be recorded and audio will be available to stream or download after (or during) ICSAA 2018. Sometimes there will be six meetings going on simultaneously so we may not be able to record them all. Some workshop moderators may wish to not have their session recorded and we will respect that. Anonymity will be respected.

Several of us have independently created Facebook events-notices for ICSAA2018. It’s a bit confusing; I don’t even remember which one I started. “Sorry,” as we say in Canada. I don’t know how to combine them and include everyone who’s commented or checked off “going,” “interested” or “not going.”

Anyone driving, I hope you can include a random secular AA meeting along your way; be sure to invite other members to come. If you’re driving to Toronto, if you come through Buffalo, be sure to stop by Niagara Falls on the way here or on the way home. If you’re flying in and have extra days in Toronto, consider a trip to Niagara Falls; it’s about 1 ½ hours from Toronto and a great way to spend a day and even better place to take some selfies.

In the final stretch, sign up for the Secular AA Newsletter. Keep up with Conference schedule (a work in progress) and look for more Toronto tips and things-to-do on social media. We’re thinking of a collective “recovery song list” so if you have a song that’s been important to your sobriety we’ll be asking you to share your story.

Look to our social media sites for updates. Here are some things we’re hearing, and I expect social-media is the best way to hook up for:

  • People looking for rides and people with room in their car,
  • People coming who want to share their room with another AA member,
  • People asking for local info about things to do/see in Toronto.

Of course, not everyone in our community is on Facebook so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all means of hooking people up.

If you have any questions or comments, the floors open; I’ll try to get back to everyone in the comment section.

Joe C is the author the ever-popular book Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. This is a book of daily reflections that is often read at the beginning of secular AA meetings and followed by a round the table discussion.

He was one of the founders of the Toronto group and meeting, Beyond Belief Agnostic and Freethinkers Group, Canada’s longest running secular AA meeting. He is also the creator and manager of the website, Rebellion Dogs Publishing.

18 Responses

  1. Alyssa says:

    Life, it’s SODA. I didn’t read the entire post but I’d be happy to drop you back at the airport and pick you up if you need a ride, & if your flight lands well in advance of the beginning to the conference? U have my email, shoot me a line ok?

  2. Alyssa says:

    Wow, that was amazing to read! What an inclusive & knowledgeable disposition. 🙂

    Looking forward to meeting folks since Santa Monica, the AA Agnostica old-school chatroom, the coffeeshop Facebook group & seeing TO people who I haven’t seen since Widening Our Gateway up in Richmond Hill closed.

    Love SODA

  3. Dale K. says:

    Thank you, Joe, for all this information. I’m really looking forward to ICSAA 2018.

    I believe “life-altering” is quite appropriate. For me, Austin was just that. The Austin conference opened my life to the secular AA community. Meeting all the wonderful people and creating friendships with the attendees, without question, altered my life. I was thrilled to host one of these people in my home last year. I have visited others and gone to secular meetings outside my home group. The advent of so much secular fellowship has, indeed, made my life so much richer. I first attended a secular meeting in the mid 80’s and made it my home group. For the next 30 years, I had no idea there were so many other groups like this.

    Discovering AA Agnostica and attending the Austin conference opened my eyes to the wonderful and wide world of secular AA groups and people. Reigniting all this in Toronto will be exciting and wonderful!

  4. life-j says:

    IF it is. The only thing known so far is that it ISN’T, because I tried. Now if anyone can do something about it that would be great.

  5. life-j says:

    I come in Thursday probably late afternoon, haven’t booked a flight yet.

    Yes it is odd they can’t give me my room for Sunday night too at the discounted price – I got the impression that it was a time issue, not a space issue. But I may need to stay Sunday night too, since I’m part of the 3 pm Sunday panel.

    Part of why I haven’t bought a plane ticket yet is it is not refundable, and I am still not 100% sure I am able to go. But maybe you and I could talk about that, I know you’re coming out this way in February, I will have to see if the ticket is transferable.

    Personally I will probably not want any other outings than restaurants within 5 minutes walking distance, most of my free time will simply be spent resting.

    It is good we’re having this discussion of issues, we need to keep it open along the way.

    And also – there will probably be other people coming in Thursday – I think probably something, even informal ought to be planned, such as a meeting room we can have, or space in the hotel restaurant, or something like that?

  6. Eva C says:

    I want to add another 2 days to my stay at the Marriott and I too was hoping that I could get the discounted rate. I’m happy to know that it is still available. I’m really looking forward to this event. See you all in Toronto!

  7. The Marriott DOES NOT offer a direct bus-shuttle. Their website estimates a cab ride at $65 (Canadian). The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) is the most economical at $3.25 per person each way.

  8. What day and time do you get into Toronto Life j?

    Upon check-in at the hotel, participants will receive a welcome package with a guide and up-to-date program. Registration desk of ICSAA will open Friday AM, August 24th, in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. Our Hospitality Suite will open at 3 PM and the registration desk will have the room number.

    At 7 PM we gather in the main hall down the escalators (or elevator from the lobby and Dianne P and me (Joe C) will moderate a “around the world” series of 10-15 minute shares from members from around the world. Formally, that should run until about 9-ish and I will certainly hang around for anyone else who wants to introduce themselves and share for a few minutes.

    There will also be some Toronto outings during the day (Friday) for people who want to do group things. Depending what people choose, it could be walking or bicycle tours, Nigel will happily talk a car load of people who want to capture some pictures of Toronto from different vantage points. The Art Gallery of Ontario, Aquarium or CN Tower are also worthwhile two to three hour trips that members can gather for and do as a group or informally on their own.

    There may well be a bus-shuttle to downtown hotels; I’ll look into that – I overlooked it when covering ground-transportation.

    I am quite sure extra room nights at the discounted price are still available. I think Nigel or Carol are in close contact with the hotel staff and either could help you secure an extra night. At some point we’ll run out of discounted rooms (we’ve only been allotted so many but we’re not at capacity yet).

  9. life-j says:

    Joe, thanks.

    To some of us it is cause for concern that so many things happen on facebook.

    I’m puzzled there aren’t airport shuttles for the hotel.

    Another thing, I called the hotel a few days ago to add on Sunday night, just in case I couldn’t get a Sunday evening flight out, and they informed me that it was no longer available at the discount price. They didn’t say whether it was available at all, but I would imagine that it was. Anyway it is funny that this far ahead the discount has been closed, especially for adding a day. Well, I figure I can probably find someone to crash on if needed.

    I’m still a bit puzzled as to what we’re actually going to be doing Friday night.

    Other than that, look forward to seeing y’all.

  10. Kurt W says:

    Major thanks, Joe, for this excellent overview of what’s to come in Toronto. I’m bookmarking this and have PDF’d the conference schedule – thanks again for the hotlink – and will embark on a ‘plan of action’ of checking in to the site weekly now. Hope to meet you there; definitely want to join Faye for the CE – and whoever else for so much else.

  11. Dave S. says:

    Nice !!! – but how do we register??

  12. Roger says:

    One of the earliest articles – November 2011 – posted on AA Agnostica was Faye’s Story. Click on the image below to read it:

    Faye's Story

  13. Faye P. says:

    Kudos to all who are working in the trenches to make this conference a success. I hope that everyone comes out to meet up and to make this part of AA stronger for all of us.

    It’s okay to celebrate sobriety, to have fun and to support others.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent commentary, Joe, about our upcoming gathering in Toronto. Thanks for all the good service work you do both for AA in general as well as for ICSAA.

  15. Murray J. says:

    Thanks Joe. Great information. My wife and I will definitely be there.

  16. Roger says:

    Just sounds great. We don’t yet have a community here in Sweden to help offset some expenses but will be more than keen to get post-conference report.

    All best, Roger Ch

  17. John R. says:

    Thanx for all the info, Joe. We can’t afford to go, but it’s nice to feel included this way. Kat and I both send our love.

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