Reclaiming the Commons wins the Ottawa Book Award

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Heather Menzies received the honour of the Ottawa Book Award for Non-Fiction on Wednesday, October 21, 2015.


Here is what the jurors said:

Jury Statement:

“In this eloquent memoir written from the heart, Menzies takes the reader on a fascinating trip to the Scotland of her ancestors to examine and retrace life on the Scottish Commons. With a light and at times poetic touch, she offers her insights into how the venerable wisdom of sharing and caring for the land might be applied today. A unique combination of memoir and manifesto, Reclaiming the Commons urges us to become participants in changing our world for the common good.”

Dr. Richard T. Clippingdale, Suzanne Evans and merilyn simonds

Read more about the city’s Book Award and Announcement.

Ottawa Citizen featured the winners, so read more.

Reclaiming Cities as Commons

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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

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“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.

Occupy Habitat?

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Occupy Habitat?

Reviving the Occupy Movement, Climate Change & the Commons

By Heather Menzies (author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good)

Heather Menzies speaks at Occupy Ottawa

Heather Menzies speaks about the White Poppy movement at Occupy Ottawa in November 2011.

Oxfam’s recent report, Working for the Few, on one per cent of the world’s population controlling most of the world’s economic power got me thinking about the relevance of the Occupy Movement, and why perhaps now would be a time to revive it.

The movement served notice on the moral danger of such deep inequalities: when even the hope of common-good consensus collapses into a them-versus-us divide. But equally, the occupiers brought the issue down to earth. One of the little-discussed truths about the escalating concentration of wealth and power is how ephemeral it is. It’s centred in the information systems running the post-industrial phase of the global market economy. It’s in the trillions of dollars and related influence vested in stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, derivatives and other largely unregulated financial instruments. Quite apart from how insulated the wealthy can be, there’s the fact that the power they wield, relentlessly, 24-7, is through symbols on a screen, far removed from the impact those symbols have in real life, on the ground.

The impulse of the Occupy movement was brilliantly intuitive: to bring home the truth of what it means to real people through the simple act of real people coming together in real time and space, starting with Wall Street. Through their words and actions, they bore witness to the inequalities, the marginalization, the sickness and stress that ordinary people experience every day as they live out the realities of a global economy being driven faster and harder through a combination of digital networks plus deregulation.

That impulse could be extended further: to bring home the climate crisis as it’s lived out now by inhabitants of specific habitats being affected. Perhaps it’s time for the people involved in the Occupy movement in various cities and towns to form common cause with people in what’s largely defined as the environment movement. When they do, hopefully they can share the lessons of what they learned about living responsibly within earth’s habitats from when they occupied the habitats of city parks.

I showed up periodically at Ottawa Occupy, which had taken over a lovely park in downtown Ottawa. I came mostly to bring food and to express my solidarity. But I also spoke to the young men and women who were running the kitchen and organizing the daily general assemblies, and I paid attention. I noted how much energy and time they put into cultivating mutually respectful relations in the running of the camp. I noted how well they were taking care of daily business and taking care of the park itself.

It reminded me of the pre-modern commons I was currently researching for my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good. The general assemblies, I told them, didn’t just date back to the township meeting practices of New England (and Upper Canada too). They harkened back to the self-governing practices of the commons which were still being extinguished (by the Enclosure Movement) when many of the early ‘settlers’ came to North America. Then, though, the scope of self-governance wasn’t just the social habitat. It was the social and the natural habitat together, with self-governance geared to the mutual sustainability of both habitat and inhabitants. That’s why the commons is a useful heritage to draw on today.


Remembrance Day in Ottawa

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Remembrance Day 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Dennis Gruending.

Remembrance Day is always an important day for me as a peace activist and also as a writer who tries to speak truth to power. I participated once again in a White Poppy ceremony at the Cenotaph in Ottawa, after the main Red Poppy event.

In my speech I made it clear that I wear both poppies: the red to honour those who lost their lives in war and the white to keep saying that war is not an acceptable option; it violates life, it violates the earth and it poisons the air physically and metaphorically. In my comments and in an op-ed I wrote for the Toronto Star that day, I described my Canada as a white poppy country because of its founding values (peace, order and good governance), and its leadership in efforts to step-by-step criminalize and outlaw war.

Ottawa writer Dennis Gruending shared his views on the event in his Pulpit and Politics blog and took the photo seen above. Enjoy and let me know what you think.