The lectures were established in honour of the distinguished Canadian artist William Kurelek.

William Kurelek was a deeply religious man who agonized over the plight of mankind, especially among the underprivileged who make up the majority of the world's population. He depicted in his paintings the virtues of a number of Canadian cultural groups, their experiences and traditions. These annual lectures were named after William Kurelek to acknowledge the contribution he made to Canada and mankind and to keep verdant the memory of a great artist and remarkable human being. Also by providing a forum for individuals prominent in the fields of arts and letters, scholarship and politics, the lectures are intended to promote understanding and appreciation of the importance of dignity, freedom and responsibility of the individual in society.

The lectures were inaugurated in 1978 by Professor Ramsay Cook of York University and Dean Kenneth M. Lysyk of the University of British Columbia.

Succeeding lectures were given by A. Raynell Andreychuk, Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya; Yuriy Ayvazian, Jurist, Kyiv; Virko Baley, University of Nevada; Robert Choquette, University of Ottawa;Dmytro Cipywnyk, University of Saskatchewan; Robert Conquest, Hoover Institute of War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University; Jim Coutts, Toronto; Norman Davies, University of London; Dr. John H. Dirks, Dean of Medicine, University of Toronto; Andrew Gregorovich, John Robarts Library at University of Toronto; Robert F. Harney, University of Toronto; Rev. Stanford Lucyk, Toronto; James B. Maas, Cornell University; Patricia Morley, Concordia University; Peter J. Potichnyj, McMaster University; Peter Reddaway, London School of Economics and Political Science; Roy Romanow, Attorney General and now Premier of Saskatchewan; Peter Shostak, Victoria, British Columbia; the late Mr. Justice Walter Tarnopolsky, The Court of Appeal for Ontario; Nikolai Tolstoy, Oxford, England; and Bohdan Vitvitsky, Columbia University.