Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 2


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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.)


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.

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.