Canada’s National Library as Cultural Commons

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Based on her presentation celebrating the re-opening of the LAC to the public

By Heather Menzies

Peter Schneider, Heather Menzies

Peter Schneider, Manager of the Public Lending Right Program and Executive Secretary to the Public Lending Right Commission (The Canada Council), and Heather Menzies chat at the re-opening of the Library and Archives Canada. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada.

It might be rude when celebrating the Library and Archives of Canada being re-opened as a public cultural space to ask why this matters. But it still might be appropriate, considering how many people get their culture so much more conveniently now at home. It might also be timely to consider what public cultural spaces mean – by remembering and even re-envisioning them as a continuity of historical commons.

As I learned when exploring my roots in the Scottish Highlands, the word common, deriving from two Latin words, means ‘together as one.’ For my ancestors, it meant people coming together in mutual self-interest in shared habitat. It involved working out relations with the land for the common good, which at root meant mutual sustainability: the sustainability of habitat and inhabitants both.

The culture of the commons was not separate from the economy, but an indivisible part of it: informing it and giving expression to its larger meaning. Common knowledge, or shared knowledge derived from shared experience, observation and discussion, informed such critical economic policies as the setting of limits, called stints. These stints were applied to, for example, the number of cows, sheep and goats any one family could take to the upland pasture, called the shieling, for the summer, to prevent it being over-grazed and destroyed. Ceremonies and invocations attended these seasonal migrations, much as in Ottawa, the Algonquins traditionally performed a tobacco ceremony at the base of the mighty Chaudière Falls before attempting any portage around them.

Left to right: Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Library and Archivist of Canada; Peter Schneider, Canada Council for the Arts; Heather Menzies; Sean Wilson, Artistic Director, Ottawa International Writers Festival; Simon Brault, Director and CEO for the Canada Council for the Arts. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Left to right: Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Library and Archivist of Canada; Peter Schneider, Manager of the Public Lending Right Program (The Canada Council); Heather Menzies; Sean Wilson, Artistic Director, Ottawa International Writers Festival; Simon Brault, Director and CEO for the Canada Council for the Arts.
Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada

As my ancestors journeyed up Glen Lyon toward the shielings, tradition bearers also led them in songs, like Chi Mi, which means “ I see.” Each verse began with these words, then named some feature of the landscape through which they were passing, followed by a story, an incident associated with that spot. As I hiked to the shieling myself, combining all the academic reading I’d done with walking the land my forbears had inhabited, I tried to imagine my way into what it might have been like: people singing their storied connection to the land and, in the shared singing, renewing it – renewing that shared connection – as part of their identity.

The experience enlarged my perspective, allowing me to understand the enduring significance of public culture as commons. People make and re-make public spaces into commons as they come together in shared experience at a kids’ sports event, a concert, a play, a community picnic in a park or an art exhibit. I recall the excitement in the air at the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario as people shared ‘getting it’ – be it the shape-shifting vision of Norval Morrisseau, the moral courage of Alex Colville or the mystical gaze of Mary Pratt.

Some of our newest city libraries (Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver) seem also to evoke the spirit of the commons in their design, with their openness not just to inside-outside flow-through but inside as well – with wide, open staircases and foyers, and coffee shops too, where people can linger, see and be seen and participate in a range of events. Meanwhile, arts-council grants and public-use payment schemes like PLR (Public Lending Right) nurture mutual sustainability: helping creators sustain themselves financially so that the cultural habitat they help enrich can, in turn, sustain its citizen-inhabitants with relevant knowledge and narratives of connection.

Besides being repositories of common knowledge, libraries are also offering a range of knowledge-commoning activities – with participatory exhibits, such as the Library and Archives Canada’s “Naming” project, and speakers’ series, such as the “Incite” programming at the Vancouver library and a similar one in Halifax where the narratives and knowledge vested in books and archives is made new through people’s engagement with it. It all keeps the cultural habitat alive: the public realm on which a healthy democracy and the capacity to come together for the common good depend.

The legacy of the commons reminds us of what is important in all this: engagement through ongoing relationships and activities in which there’s room for all to participate. There’s a corollary to this that is equally important: the commons model of local self-governance and shared responsibility in project teams. Though Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, ‘the medium is the message,’ has largely been applied to communication media, it applies to any means or medium used for getting things done. That’s why we have ‘arms length’ cultural institutions in Canada. They are not state bureaucracies, nor for-profit businesses. I would hold up the commons as a mirror through which these institutions might usefully see themselves afresh.

Heather Menzies is the author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, and Chair of The Writers Union of Canada. This essay is based on a presentation she gave at the reopening of the Library and Archives Canada to the public on May 25, 2016.

Video: Living the Limits to Growth with Heather Menzies

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On March 9, 2016, Heather Menzies spoke to the Canadian Association of Clubs of Rome in Ottawa, Canada, where she spoke on the theme “Living the Limits to Growth.” Have a listen and let us know what you think in the comments.

So sorry to miss it in person! It is excellent!! Inspiring. Just plain wonderful.

Susan Tanner, former Executive Director, Canadian Environmental Network

Ancestral Relations with the Land

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If we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations — relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.


Menzies_tweet_AncestorsBy Heather Menzies

As memories of giving the opening keynote at an International Conference on the Commons (IASC2015) start to fade, the lasting learning for me is twofold:

  • First, that we all have ancestral relations to the land; and,
  • second, that positioning ourselves to reclaim this, at first just in our imagination as a possible shift in perspective, is a critical step in reconnecting with the earth and the urgent task of transforming our economic and political relations with it, for mutual survival.

My speech was well received, with many people approaching me later to say thanks, to have me sign their copy of my book and to extend the conversation. What touched people most was my being moved, and even led, by fragments of information I’d uncovered in my research which, in turn, became like fragments of ancestral memory coming to life inside me.

Menzies_tweet_IdleNoMore_Thomas_DyckTheir attentiveness had deepened when I lingered over the phrase “a field in good heart” that dated back to commoning times. The words suggested a connection, heart to heart, between people like my ancestors who lived together on the commons and the land that they worked, and also inhabited deeply, even spiritually.

I wasn’t the only speaker evoking this theme. The conference as a whole was framed to honour the Indigenous peoples of Alberta and their unbroken connections to the land, and featured people with Aboriginal heritage from across Canada and around the world. Francois Paulette, who gave another of the keynote speeches is a Denesuline former chief, a residential school survivor and the co-chair of the Dene Nations Water Strategy. He also lives beside the river, having chosen to move back there when he realized “I was talking about my way of life but I wasn’t living it.

“Our way of life was in the river and on the land,” he said. “And also our spiritual practices that showed us how to live. Our river was our lifeline.”

In my last book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I drew parallels between the degradation of the natural environment and a parallel degradation of the social environment. This is evident not just in deepening inequalities but also social marginalization and disengagement, loneliness and depression. I argued that if we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations, I argued: relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.

I invited people to see themselves as entering a relationship with plants they might grow in a flower box, entering a relationship with neighbours in a community garden or cleaning up a shoreline, entering a relationship with that body of water as well.

Researching ancestral relations with the land is a way of deepening that connection. I started personally as I traced three out of four branches of my family tree back to the Tay River Valley in the Highlands of Scotland. Once there, though, I found that ancestral relations with the land are more than personal. Or perhaps I should say that the personal extends beyond the individual and the subjective; certainly it did for my ancestors as I dug into the history and uncovered the matrix of commons practices of sharing and governing relations with the land for mutual sustainability in which their lives were immersed.

Ancestral relations with the land clearly include the social. Another speaker at the IASC (International Association for the Study of the Commons) conference, Gitksan Ruby Gordon spoke of her ancestral relations with the huckleberry patches in northern B.C. as “a social infrastructure for berry patch management” that combined both skills and practices and community relationships of shared responsibility and care.

Ancestral relations can extend to the political as well. Every historical account I’ve read about commons and commons-like relations to the land includes an intricate network of rules governing access to the land and use of its resources, as well as an equally intricate network of consequences (sanctions, penalties) for free riders. But here is where the political doubles back to the personal. The current president of the IASC, Tine DeMoor has reviewed the record books of commons that thrived in the Netherlands in early modern times (some lasting for nearly 700 years), and found that the ones that endured did not need sanctions and were able to avoid the expense (time, money and emotional energy) that applying sanctions involved.

“The secret,” she wrote in a paper co-authored with Annelies Tukker, “seems to lie in ensuring that people meet frequently so that they ‘internalize’ rules….[and are] more frequently confronted with their moral duty to behave well…. [H]igh levels of participation consequently may have been more important for the longevity of the institution than sanctioning.”

A host of things are required to produce meaningful commitments at the Climate Change conference in December, including fact-based evidence of the irredeemable damage being done by an out-of-control global market economy. But cultural and spiritual ‘evidence’ has a place in the conversation too. The recoverable stories and memories of implicated connection to the earth can remind us of our shared, our collective heritage and what it’s calling us to do and say – beyond the founds of utilitarian rationality.

Remembering and daring to ground ourselves in our ancestral relations with the land will help bridge the nature-culture divide that continues to make the fate of the earth a political game of winners, losers and free riders that is someone else’s responsibility to resolve.

On why a “People’s Climate” works, but only so far

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“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 1

Countdown to Paris, Dec., 2015: The People’s Climate &

This article starts “The People’s Climate” blog series by Heather Menzies, author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A memoir & a manifesto.

In Reclaiming the Commons, I praise Bill McKibben and as Luddites for our times for championing limits on energy extraction.

– Heather Menzies



# One: On why a “People’s Climate” works, but only so far.

If you’d marched to the UN shouting “the people’s climate” 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have made sense like it does now. Two things have changed.

Back then, scientist-experts informed government decision-makers who spoke and acted to defend common-good things like the climate and the environment on behalf of people and the planet. Sometimes they needed a nudge from opposition parties and civil society groups, but that generally moved things along, sort of; though the crisis kept deepening, becoming more palpably obvious too. Now civil society groups –the people– are taking the initiative, informing themselves of the science and telling decision-makers what to say and do, NOW. The fate of the earth, and of its climate is no longer a scientists’ or official policymakers’ issue. It has become a people’s issue.

Secondly, environmental catastrophes of the past emerged from the environment itself – meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, mini-ice ages, etc. This time, it’s ‘man-made,’ as Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her acclaimed book, The Sixth Extinction. To be more precise, today’s climate crisis is the product of modern, generally carbon-based industry, and the corporations who run them, generally for their own profit-making priorities. But deepening inequalities have sharpened public perception of other them-us dichotomies, making it easier for more people to say: It’s OUR climate, not something that corporations can simply abuse and abandon! It’s time for us therefore to have a say in healing it so that our children and grandchildren can breathe, and live!

So now what? In the next few blog posts I want to explore this. Because climate is “atmospheric conditions” and “the people” similarly amorphous, I want to ground ‘what’s next’ in place and habitat, and the institutions of responsible government through which the people’s climate priorities can be articulated into actionable policy.

It’s all about living within the carrying capacity of the living and lived-in environment. And that’s what economic governance in the days of the pre-modern commons was all about. Remnants of this common-good regulation extended into the early decades of the new industrial economy. For instance, there were limits set on the number of looms a single cloth manufacturer could operate – to help sustain the local socio-economic habitat of the craft-scale cloth industry in which families’ household economies ran on the work of a single loom. In the early 1800s, however, industrial corporations had achieved enough lobbying power that these regulations were rescinded. This deregulation (of a scale equivalent to free-trade agreements of today) triggered the Luddite movement. This movement was not anti-development or anti-progress as such, though that’s how it has generally been depicted. As I quote British historian E.P. Thompson in my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, the Luddites “saw a role for capital in society, but within limits,” limits hinged to the carrying capacity of environment and habitat.

In Reclaiming the Commons, I praise Bill McKibben and as Luddites for our times. “They’re not trying to stop progress,” I write (pg. 189), “only redefine it as informed by the carrying capacity of this precious, fragile planet on which we all, and all progress, depends. The new normal is trying to inculcate is like that of our ancestors in the community and land-based economies of their day: regulating the pace and scale of economic activity so as to sustain relations within the local habitat. It simply made sense to do this. It was normal.

This is the new normal, the new common sense that the people who rallied under “the people’s climate” banner last year are claiming for us today.

Next: A fable for our time, with teeth, to help change the prevailing ‘common sense.’

Comment from Bill McKibben: “many thanks for this! translating that energy into something real is the next great step!”

Response from Heather: “Glad to think I might help channel this fine energy into actionable policy, Bill. Thanks.”