Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 2

Featured

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 2 of 2

I won’t go into what killed the commons. Nor will I risk being a romantic and nostalgic by suggesting that it always worked out well.  And I certainly don’t want to suggest that we try to ‘go back.’ But we can learn from it. Because its practices and its ethos were distinctive – they  are both alive and relevant today.

This is evident in Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 book Governing the Commons, in recognition of which she was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Surveying current commoning practices, she argued that the self-governing commons is an alternative to running society and its institutions either on a corporate model or a state bureaucratic model.

The key is its de-centering of decision-making authority, through ‘poly-centric’ layers of distributed power resting on the direct accountability, direct democracy of local self-organizing, self-governing and self-resourcing initiatives.

I’ve found evidence of this legacy in 19th and early 20th century rural Canada. For example, there were communing practices in the over 2,000 farmer-organized and self-governed cheese factory cooperatives that dotted the  Ontario countryside from the 1860s to the 1950s, and in the self-organized, self-governing self-help tradition of Agricultural societies and fairs and other farmer organizations.

It’s also evident  in the legacy of the CCF,  the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The word, commonwealth was originally  common weal, or well-being and welfare. Interestingly, it figured in some of the founding documents of Canada, notably the Quebec Act –  where John Ralston Saul (in A Fair Country) interpreted it to mean “the fulfillment of the self within the shared wellbeing of society.”

It also figured in some of the clergy-led protest around the Enclosure movement of the 18th and early 19th centuries when the commons were enclosed and turned into private property. They called themselves “Common Wealth Men,” and both spoke from the pulpit and penned pamphlets championing “a Christian Commonwealth based on distributive justice,” as one put it. J.S. Woodsworth was their direct descendant and brought this kind of vision to the creation of the CCF, according to Walter Young in his history of the CCF, The Anatomy of a Party: the National CCF.

In Young’s account, its intention was to “transform Canadian politics from the politics of special and sectional interests to the politics of collective concern for the welfare of the individual in a society collectively organized” and to establish a “cooperative commonwealth in Canada.” Its founding took place over the course of several important gatherings of first labour groups and then of farmer groups, with these coming together with another important group – the League for Social Reconstruction – to officially found the CCF as a political party.

It remained largely a social movement, though its concrete successes  –  old age pensions, associated with Woodsworth and Medicare, associated with Tommy Douglas – derived from its also going the distance of being a political party. (It left unresolved how the small-p politics of a social movement can feed the big-p politics of a political party without either becoming subservient to the other.)

camp_woodsworth_gabriola_island

A scene from the CCF Camp Woodsworth on Gabriola Island, B.C. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

In honouring and learning from the CCF’s legacy as a social movement, it’s important to remember its more social and cultural aspects: that it was about people as whole human beings coming together in community, and together tilling the soil of common ground, shared values, vision and commitment. They did this through shared learning and getting-to-know you opportunities – like the CCF summer camp here on Gabriola, but also including book clubs and study groups, augmented by the intellectual ferment of the League for Social Reconstruction, and publications like the Canadian Forum magazine which published poetry as well as polemics. According to Young’s book, fellowship was important, not just as a by-product of all these gatherings but as something to be championed in its own right. I think of it as the social glue and grease of cooperation.

The federation concept in their name was also important. It’s a form of scaling up dialogue and political organization in a way that preserves the integrity of the constituent more local parts. Regional conventions allowed people to come together representing an array of local organizations, and to genuinely talk and listen their way toward consensus around policies, while also developing a leadership capable of navigating the larger political arenas.

What can we take from this legacy to guide and inspire us today? I think it affirms the importance of a lot that’s already going on here on Gabriola that is cultivating common ground,  often using commons-like practices in the process. Of course, there’s the Gabriola Commons itself, which consciously builds on the traditional commons model: with its self-organization and self-governance, its commoning of knowledge in monthly council meetings, its Saturday morning work bees and post-work bee lunches of hearty soup & bread, and its conservation covenant that seeks to conserve both the social and the natural in what could point the way to an ecological contract.

There’s also GALTT, GYRO, Sustainable Gabriola and Island Futures, and all the self-organizing, self-governance capacity that has arisen from these groups to inspire and sustain other initiatives like Gertie, the community bus service and the GabEnergy solar hydro project and more.

On the cultural side, a similar DIY self-organizing spirit animates a lot of the projects that have emerged under the leadership of people like Leah Hokanson with her Lulu Performing Arts Society, plus the Gabriola Arts Council and the local library, much of it broadly inclusive and participatory.

In a book called No Culture, No Future,  Simon Brault, who is currently the head of the Canada Council of the Arts, summarized years of working to make culture a part of planning for the revitalization of Montreal. “Cultural participation in all its forms… has become a goal to strive for so that …cities don’t fall apart due to the economic, social, linguistic and cultural disparities,” he wrote. The goal is to rebuild and restore common ground in our social and political environments.

For those of us in rural areas like Gabriola and the Salish Sea, I think the goal is slightly larger: to heal the disparities of habitat, and to extend the sense of shared habitat from the strictly social of a built habitat to the living habitat of the land. One way to do this is by learning how to be allies to the Indigenous peoples of this land in their journeys of healing and reconnection with the land, and honouring our obligations as treaty people.

None of this is easy. None of this will happen overnight. There’s a lot of healing and recovery to be done: restoring agency to people, and extending the possibility of this to non-human others; honouring and recovering voice; and cultivating the common ground necessary to receive and support the seeds of renewal, gradually replacing a social contract of rights with an ecological one of shared responsibilities and right relations.

Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 1

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 1 of 2

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past…  when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me.

 

John Capon, Grace McInnis and other CCF Campers in 1945.

1945 CCF Camp Woodsworth, with the young Gabriolan John Capon (seated left centre) with a number of CCF luminaries, including Grace McInnis. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past. It can inspire if people see themselves as more than a part of a narrative that merely got lost on the road to empire and globalization. They will put their faith into some of the emergent economic and social alternatives of today if they can see these as linked to an historical legacy – when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me. At least that’s what I think.

The legacy I offer is that of the pre-modern commons. Its’ ethos and practices have persisted in such modern organizations as the CCF: the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, that flourished in Canada in the 1930s.

I encountered the commons by accident, having gone looking for some alternative to the current endgame of corporate and investment globalization, something that would get me out of the box of thinking only about jobs and alternative investment opportunities.

On a whim, I went to Scotland to trace my ancestral roots, and found them at something called Tullicro, a pre-modern commons hamlet in the remote Glen Lyon River Valley in the Highlands. Over the next three years, I immersed myself in the historical record on this much-misunderstood form of societal organization.  I combined this with long days actually walking the land that my ancestors had walked, and farmed and pastured their sheep, cattle and goats, in common.

The first thing I learned is that the commons isn’t just land: it’s people and land living together; habitat and human inhabitants.

It’s  people living in direct relation –even right relations–  with the land for mutual sustainability. That was the first gem of discovery: an ecological form of direct democracy in which ‘agency’ was not only local but centred in relationships, not isolated individuals. Moreover, these relationships included the land and non-human inhabitants of habitat.

I learned that the word ‘common’ means ‘together as one’. I also learned that this togetherness was worked out through ongoing commoning relationships, between families in the commons community and between them and the land they had co-inhabited since before recorded time. An ethos of the shared or common good infused this, which meant very simply limiting individual ambition within the carrying capacity of the local community and environment.

The commons is actually a verb – to common. Commoning involved sharing work and resources like plows and breeding bulls, sharing the land and common pastures. And this involved a lot of shared self-organization into work bees, and also self-governance and related justice. It was about contributing your share, getting your share, and also about sharing decision-making power and related responsibility.

It was responsible self-governance, with this practiced first and most often at the level of the daily work-project team – be this around maintaining stone fences or getting everyone to the common pastureland called the Shieling for the summer, and more broadly in regulations such as the limits, or ‘stints’ on how many sheep, cows and goats any one family could pasture at the shieling.

Another thing I learned is that the economics of it was interwoven with the social, the cultural and the spiritual. I want to emphasize this because we’ve been schooled to think of economics as separate from how we live our lives, and so the contradictions that economics forces upon us are kept at a distance. Yet when social and cultural priorities inform economics, the economics that emerge can be different – something that is happening today in everything from community-assisted agriculture to fair-trade networks.

One aspect of the social and cultural was in commoners’ knowledge practices. Instead of a super-powered expert few and a disempowered many, you had the commoning of experience and observation into shared knowledge – notably through the spoken word. This knowledge informed  decisions at commons meetings – such as when certain strips of shared farmland should lie fallow for a season, or how many sheep could be sent to the common pasture land for the summer so that the pasture would not be over-grazed. Not only did everyone have a stake in getting these decisions right. Everyone had a share in the knowledge that informed them.

The cultural included the social aspects of the meetings and all the shared work. It also included gatherings around the music of a kaelie (ceilidh), both pagan and Celtic Christian faith practices and rituals accompanying the annual flitting to the shieling.

This wasn’t culture as consumption. It was culture as participation, as self and shared expression, as social bonding and mutual trust.  All of this cultivated the common ground of the commons. It underpinned the success of its small-p politics by helping sustain a shared commitment to the common good and trust in the mutuality of this.

Part 2 of this presentation will be posted on Monday, October 3, 2016.

Ancestral Relations with the Land

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

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.

Doing Development Differently

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

I recommend that Rachel Notley bring together not a blue-ribbon commission, but one with a green ribbon and a yellow, black, red and white one to represent the equal voice that will be given to Aboriginal understandings of ‘development’.

Commons. conf. KeynotesThe election of Rachel Notley at a time when depressed oil prices have pushed the ‘pause’ button on runaway resource development in Alberta. It offers a karma-like opportunity to re-think what ‘development’ means — especially for the people who’ve grown tired of the same old ways and voted for change. These ways, once summarized by the line that “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”, have long outlived their usefulness, while delivering less and less to fewer and fewer people.

The corporate good and corporate development are no longer synonymous with the common good. It’s time to reclaim the common good and re-define ‘development’ in terms that are answerable to it.

On May 26, I’ll be giving the opening keynote address to an international conference on the Commons in Edmonton, and have titled my talk: “Righting Relations with the Land and the Global Economy: Lessons from our Ancestors on the Commons.” Moreover, I will be paired with Grand Chief Steve Courtoreille, who will speak of how his ancestors related to the land in what is now Treaty 8 Territory in Alberta.

I’ll share a bit more from the speech I’ve drafted in a later blog post. But for the moment, I want to share where thinking about it has prompted my mind to go with the overthrow of status quo thinking in Alberta. Premier-elect Rachel Notley has vowed to create a new Resource Owners’ Rights Commission to review Alberta’s royalty structure. But that sounds a lot like status quo thinking too.

Or rather, with a majority mandate, perhaps she could expand the mandate of that commission, and frame its inquiry within something that dares to dream big, and to include more than the usual suspects.

I recommend that she bring together not a blue-ribbon commission, but one with a green ribbon and a yellow, black, red and white one to represent the equal voice that will be given to Aboriginal understandings of ‘development’.

After consulting with key stakeholder groups, including citizens, community and environmental groups, unions, organizations like the Pembina Institute as well as those representing the oil and gas sector to create the commission of inquiry, Notley might then charge it with conducting public meetings across the province. Here, people can come together in small discussion groups followed by plenaries to talk about what development means to them. I envisage it being a bit like the open public meetings held across the country and across the North by the Berger Inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in the 1970s where Justice Thomas Berger broadened the discourse to allow other meanings of words like ‘economy,’ ‘development’ and ‘making a living’ to have weight. For some people who might turn out for this inquiry, ‘development’ might mean developing skills, or development more as a child grows into maturity, or a community develops as neighbours help and look out for one another. For others, it might mean developing right relations with habitats and within habitats.

The CBC, both on air and through its digital platforms, plus social media and other conventional media, could help share the key themes, stories and suggestions emerging from these, and help nurture the public dialogue toward a new consensus on development.

This might include a new understanding of the need for appropriate limits on the scale and pace of development, to stay within the carrying capacity of local environments (social and ecological). It might also include consensus on how best to negotiate among various claims to share the benefits of this province’s resource inheritance. And it might foster a new willingness (by corporations and consumers alike) to share responsibility for reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption, for eliminating toxic wastes and seepage, and for shifting toward low and no-carbon energy alternatives.

Reclaiming Cities as Commons

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

8776773852_5884cb285bPeople working to reclaim cities as habitats, especially habitats that can sustain them with healthy food, water and transportation options, are in a sense reclaiming the commons. Certainly the commons offers a useful heritage to draw on, starting with the shift of perspective involved: seeing ourselves as inhabitants of local habitats, which cities are. The commons heritage also affirms seeing ourselves as implicated in shaping relations with and within this shared habitat, not waiting for politicians, bureaucrats or investors to respond to local needs and issues.

I first wrote about this when I discovered my own ancestral heritage on the commons. I’d gone looking when I was at a dead-end in my writing. I was always the writer-expert on the outside, analysing the problems and suggesting solutions. I couldn’t sense my way in – inside to where I could really connect with the issues, engage and make a difference. The journey took me to the upper reaches of the Tay River Valley in the Scottish Highlands. There, I learned, my people had lived in direct relations with the land since before recorded time, negotiating those relations for mutual sustainability, drawing on their shared experience as knowledge in doing so. That’s what a commons originally meant: people and the land they inhabited, ‘together as one.’ It’s also the roots of ‘common knowledge’ and the common good. Everyone was a participant in the commons, and implicated in its shared fate.

Twice in recent speeches (one at the College of Sustainability in Halifax, the other at the West End Well food Co-op in Ottawa) I have argued that the roots of modern-day cooperatives lie in the commons: in their practices of self-organization, self-governance and doing everything in shares. Back in the day (of my ancestors), this doing through shares didn’t involve money. It involved contributing your share of labour into work bees, to repair stone fences, called dykes, or digging drainage ditches for the shared infield. It involved sharing out that infield, with each family getting a strip, and sharing out access to the common pasture, through stints or quotas on the number of sheep, cows and goats any one family could send there, to guard against over-grazing. (And there were commons-appointed field officers, including ‘poindlers’ ready to impound any animals exceeding the quota, thus jeopardizing the common good vested in maintaining the common pasture as healthy shared habitat).

The key difference today is that modern cooperatives are corporations; their terrain of shared space and self-governance stops at the door. With a commons, dating from before the nature-culture divide, the sidewalk, the roads, the local parks and streams, even the ones hidden beneath the pavement, are included in the frame. The social and natural habitats intertwine.

I sense a reclaiming of that vision at work in many grassroots initiatives to reclaim the city as a public living space, not just retail, real estate and parking space. In Ottawa, some of this has been channeled through the conventional institution of the community association. In the neighbourhood where the West End Well Co-op operates, the local Hintonburg Community Association had spent the previous decade and more reclaiming the neighbourhood as safe, convivial living space for a diverse population of often low-income people. Not only had they turned municipal planning bureaucratese into street language so that local residents could find their voice in city planning. They had negotiated with the city to shift the management of two local parks from the city to local self-governance. A related Economic Development Committee has helped local owner-operated small businesses turn local streetscapes into welcoming, even festive spots for people to mingle and meet.

There are similar developments at work in practically every city, including under the umbrella strategy, “We Are Cities.” In Toronto, initiatives range from the episodic, like the Jane’s Walks, to longer-term ventures such as the Community Food Centre in the Symington Public Housing project, the Parkdale Community Economic Planning & Development Project and related community land trust, plus a range of gardening and local-habitat claiming initiatives by schools.

One of the lessons from my work researching and writing Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is the importance of capacity building and, with that, accumulating knowledge and confidence in doing it ourselves, informing ourselves and governing ourselves. This is the foundation for reclaiming the commons, one neighbourhood, one city at a time. This reclaiming of agency as inhabitants of habitat, neighbours in community, tenants in a tenants’ association and so on.

In a later blog post, I will write about the role that time and space-sharing ventures such as the Centre for Social Innovation and the Futures Cities collaboration between the universities of Ryerson & Toronto in Toronto and, in Ottawa, 25One Community and the Citizens’ Academy can play in fostering this sharing of local experience as knowledge and affirming local residents as knowledgeable participants in an enlarging sphere of local self-governance.

 

photo credit: Times Square via photopin (license)