Ancestral Relations with the Land

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

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

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)

People’s Climate: Di-vestment and Re-vestment

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 4

When the great Crash, ecologic or economic, comes, Heather Menzies’ brilliant critique will provide an understanding of why it came about, and a path towards a truly sustainable way for humanity to live on the planet.

– David Suzuki

By Heather Menzies, Author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Heather with friends at her annual ladies gardening party.

Heather with her friends at her annual
ladies gardening party.

Divestment is part of the shift, but only the moving-away-from-the problem part. Moving toward the positive vision I outlined, of a society and global economy operating within the carrying capacity of the earth and its atmosphere, requires a partner line of action: what I call re-vestment.

The root word, to vest, means to clothe, to place in the possession of a person things like power and legal authority. It’s generally understood in the passive sense, as in someone vesting this authority in me, with me waiting ’til it happens, if it ever does. But this is a time of taking possession, as in the Occupy Movement blowing the whistle on a dysfunctional global economy. There’s also an array of DIY initiatives filling the gap left by the retreat of governments looking after the common good. So I invoke the word this way: taking back our power and authority. In fact, that’s the energy behind both sides of this coin: divesting ourselves as in withdrawing support for and compliance with the status quo, plus vesting ourselves in creating a new one.

This two-fold dynamic of change must operate in a lot of areas, including in ways of thinking and knowing. Consider this: The process of change is not something out there that we are trying to influence, at the UN Climate Conference and elsewhere, at least that’s only part of it. We are the process of change ourselves, individually as micro-agents of change participating in street actions, but also through the changes we make locally, re-purposing buildings into shared space and community, reviving old institutions like commons and community gardens, cooperatives and village/farmers’ markets operating on the priorities of right relations and fair trade, not profit.

The more people re-possess their voice, their power to enact a vision of an economy accountable to the sustainability needs of the earth and its inhabitants – even at the level of composting and local food cooperatives – and the more they own the experience they gain as relevant policy-related knowledge, the more the di-vestment/re-vestment process will bring this alternative vision to life. (I’ll come back to knowledge and experts in a later blog posting.)

In this first blog entry on this subject, I just want to say a couple more preliminary things; then perhaps some of you will take it further with your responses.

One of these is that the divestment/re-vestment involves changing the scale and pace of things in many areas of life, not just in industrial development. It’s important to focus on one dramatic thing, such as the accelerating extraction rate in current oil and gas development and the lethal link between this and carbon emissions. That has galvanized attention, and people have taken action!

But curtailing the rate of extraction is not a stand-alone event. To contribute to the larger shift – a lowering of demand as well as of supply, and of all development being regulated and limited by the realities of what this planet and its inhabitants can sustain – this larger, multi-faceted shift must be happening as well. (Happily, it is!). The larger agenda therefore involves scaling down, from machine scale (the global investment market is the largest machine of all!) more to a human and habitat scale, and moderating the pace of life (and the rising expectations of life the market constantly feeds us with) to something more conducive to fully experiencing life instead of simply consuming it. This doesn’t mean eliminating the global scale in everything, nor slowing everything down to a walk in the park – just a shift toward a healthy mix.

In my book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I talk about this as both structural change and a personal and shared, social one of healing. How can we reconnect with the earth and be governed by its needs and limitations if we aren’t connected to ourselves and attentive to our own needs and limitations? We need to heal the disconnects within ourselves and the lives we live, as members of families and communities if we are to succeed in healing the earth.

For me, therefore, change must operate simultaneously on three levels:

1) the personal level of our daily lives;

2) the local and ‘mezzo’ level of pilot projects, institutional change, NGO actions and other sustained change generally at a local level and grounded in making a difference in real life; and,

3), the meta level of larger movements, solidarity building (especially with Aboriginal people whose often unextinguished treaty rights keep alive this other vision, of the earth as shared habitat, not real estate and extractable resources), and sharing the evolving vision, the many stories of turning it into the new common sense.

Moreover, these three levels are linked, and need to be intentionally linked so that communication can flow between them, generating dialogue and consolidating alternative-informing knowledge. Change will emerge through iterative evolution, with meta-level organizations with strong social-media networks helping to facilitate this evolution through the linkages, dialogue and policy discussion general assemblies that they create. (Besides, I think of Friends of the Earth and, in Canada, the Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians.) Besides identifying emergent strategies and championing meta-level actions, they can plug donors and would-be volunteers into local projects and institutions making meaningful change in the here and now.

I’m trying to live these three levels of change myself: coming home to myself by scaling and pacing my life within the carrying capacity of my (aging!) body and peace of mind, including through spiritual practices and gardening; coming home to my local community, through commitments to actual projects and institutions there (The West End Well Food Cooperative in Ottawa and the Gabriola Commons in BC), and coming home to the earth through both the gestalt effect of all that personal and local connection plus reaching deeper into the wisdom of the past and of contemporary thinkers, schemers and dreamers, and networking about this with others, including through this blog.

As I do, I identify myself less completely as a citizen of a nation state, and more as a commoner: an implicated participant in shared habitat, with both a right and a responsibility to be involved in its well being.

The Commons as a fable for our time – a fable with teeth. Part II

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 3

Without ties to the land is to be a broken person.

– Scottish proverb

By Heather Menzies, Author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Heather Menzies

Heather Menzies stands before an uplands valley once used as pasture commons, just as the mist begins rolling down the hills.

As I continued to walk the land my people had walked and worked and with which they’d lived in common since before recorded time, bits from the academic research I’d done on the commons stood out. One is the phrase “a field in good heart.” At a utilitarian level, It means that the soil is fertile, having good structure for holding moisture and nutrients. But at another level, it means exactly what it implies as it links a farming field to a human heart: an intimacy of identification and connection.

I’m similarly moved by an old custom that an academic researcher uncovered. When the commoners had elected or chosen a field officer – the person entrusted to ensure that everyone followed the regulations, which included manuring practices and leaving fields to lie fallow on a regular basis – he took his oath of office while standing in the field. Often too, he would not only take off his hat, but also his shoes and stockings. Standing there bare foot, he reached down and picked up a handful of dirt and, holding that fist against his heart, he then took his oath, swearing to be faithful to the community and the land they farmed together.

One more story to make my point (see my book for more details): When my commoner-ancestors headed out from the main settlement where they lived full time and grew field crops, when they headed into the higher hills to the shieling for the summer, tradition bearers would lead them in songs, including Chi Mi, which is Gaelic for “I see.” Each verse began with these words, and went on to tell a story that linked the singers to some ridge or other feature of the landscape they were passing. Singing that song every year was a way of greeting that bit of the land like an old friend or relative. The stories of shared experience on the land knit them closer to it, affirming that connection as part of their identity.

There’s an old Scottish saying that a person with no ties to the land is “a broken person.” It’s a saying worth remembering as we work toward actionable policies, and a shared commitment, to heal the climate by healing humanity’s relations with the earth.

I don’t know whether someone like Clayton Thomas-Muller might see me as a possible ally some day. And I don’t know exactly whether seven generations back in time for me does situate me closer to a pre-modern identity, tied to the land or not. But if I am to have integrity as someone trying to articulate an alternative to the “same old, same old”, I must practice what I preach.

The heritage of the commons offers actionable policies, including limits on extraction, carbon and other emissions. This is part of the work we need to do to renegotiate relations with the earth for mutual sustainability, but only part.

The intellectual work is important; that’s the teeth of meaningful change. But reclaiming old rituals and practices of connection, relationship building and community are equally important. So is recovering the old stories of connection and, equally, owning the stories of disconnection and our participation in this. They are the cultural, spiritual and even psychological work that’s needed as much as the political work of policy making. Or, to continue the metaphor, they are the jaws in which the teeth are set. They are the face, the voice and the body, too, powering the momentum of identification and commitment that are needed to make earth-sustainabilty policies part of a new common sense.