Healthy Roots – notes from a community building conference in Guelph

Healthy Roots was a community building conference in the fall of 2003 at the University of Guelph … offering an opportunity for dialogue and learning on community issues.  Specific topics covered: Anti-poverty organizing – Community Gardening – Media – The Native experience – Building Communities – Urban Sprawl.

—- Notes by Greg Macdougall —-


In November 1999, 50000 people gathered in Seattle to demonstrate against the World Trade Organization and the neoliberal agenda it imposes on the world. They were able to shut down the meetings, and the prognosis for the future looked hopeful.

This sparked a rise in the mass consciousness of what was happening, raising awareness of some of the key issues surrounding international relations, poverty, the environment, health, and more.

Now, four years later the World Trade Organization met in Cancun, Mexico and the ‘third world’ countries walked out of the talks on their own to protest the arrogance in which the wealthy countries were treating them.

But what has happened with the activist movement? In the lead up meetings in Montreal, only 1000 or 1500 people gathered to show their opposition. This is a huge difference to what had happened just over two years earlier, when a huge crowd demonstrated against the meetings in Quebec over the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and were subjected to an overdose of tear gas and government police brutality.

Knowledge of the types of neo-liberal policies represented by Structural Adjustment Programs has grown, but resistance seems to have shrunk. It is not apparent on the nightly newscast; to the people living through their TVs, living isolated and/or overly demanding and stressful lives, there is no resistance. Hegemony rules and things are moving ahead as they should.

But in reality, the resistance is maturing, moving away from flashy action and consolidating strength in locally-centred, community-building initiatives.

Healthy Roots, a community building conference, was held September 13 2003 at the University of Guelph. It was organized as a replacement to more traditional frosh week activities where money was raised for groups in the community, instead offering an opportunity for dialogue and learning on community issues.

+ + +

Anti-poverty organizing

The day got off to a late start, as OCAP activists were delayed by an accident on the 401. John Clarke led a group discussion of organizing against poverty, beginning with a brief overview of some key points from the situation in Toronto.

They’ve found the key to organizing in poor communities is to be able to consistently demonstrate the ability to provide something of value to that community. When people need food for their kids or help to keep from being evicted, being told about a march happening next week is not going to meet their needs.

What OCAP does is direct-action casework, where a number of people get together and confront the problem head on, be it protesting at the Air Canada desk at Pearson to prevent a deportation, blockading a Shell gas station to get the company to stop withholding an employee’s pay, or showing up to stop an eviction or get someone to get their welfare check.

They also realize the importance of raising the level of public consciousness, building everyone’s awareness of what is actually happening to other people in their communities. This is what can help change the current pattern of general passivity and acceptance of acts against the poor.

Clarke used several examples to show how people can organize to change how things work.
In the 1930s during the depression, communities organized with wagons around the community. When furniture and belongings were going to be seized, the community would get there first and load everything into a wagon; when they’d arrive to seize the belongings, the house would be empty.

In another instance, a thousand people would be gathered in a very short amount without the use of telephones. Clarke explained how this type of action could change the whole concept of what an eviction means: from sending a sheriff out to remove a family from their apartment, into a whole different level of engagement requiring a large number of armed security to deal with the masses of people looking to stop it from happening. This would change how the decision to evict is made.

Clarke also talked of a recent incident involving the Somali community in Toronto, who’d been the victims of a series of robberies perpetrated by police who would take jewelry and money from people’s houses. A community meeting was being held when word came that a robbery was happening right then, and the people sprang into action. Many in the community drive taxis, and they helped shuttle the entire group over to where the incident was occurring. Soon the police were surrounded by a crowd of 200 to 300 people. This prompted calls for backup, and an ensuing melee with chemical weapons and arrests. The incident shook the police, and those officers responsible could no longer carry on in the same manner.

These examples illustrated how the way things work can be rearranged through mass community organizing, that we can come together to create significant change.

Clarke broke down the changes to poverty as resulting in three relatively recent changes: the deindustrialization of labour that reduced the availability of secure, higher-paying jobs; the cutback of social services which in real terms makes people more impoverished; and the gentrification of the low-income housing areas as richer people move in and form “militant” tenants associations looking to increase property values (with all the resulting effects).

In working to stop poverty, we are in a war. The states intentional redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich must be viewed as an act of aggression on people’s lives. The slogan “your wealth comes from our impoverishment” is chosen deliberately, and means something.

The importance of understanding our fundamental objectives cannot be overstressed as we decide on the base upon which we are organizing and the nature of the movement we want.

We need to resist and disrupt the system that exploits us, in order to find and build our power.

We must not be coopted into the pervasive way of doing things, where our fundamental objectives are lost in the way things are done, or through the people and groups we are collaborating with.

In order to not be coopted, our organizing need to be independent and effective. This is accomplished in two ways: the base we build, and the way we work.

Some of the other points that were raised in the discussion: We need to get out in our own community to make links, to share our ideas and experiences, and to inspire more people to think critically and to act. To be successful, it helps to have people behind you, supporting what you are doing, especially in the form of community coalitions and sometimes even support from the City. Perhaps we need a new definition of poverty that looks beyond financial measures alone. And – maybe most importantly – we need to start small and build a solid foundation before we look bigger.

+ + +

After the poverty discussion there was a break, then smaller sessions. Here are reports from four of them:

+ + +

Community Gardening

Two facilitators involved in Community Gardens in Waterloo discussed community gardens, in particular how to go about setting one up in your locality. In Waterloo, …

Community gardens are shared plots of land where a number of people tend to growing produce. They are a way of building localized food security, reducing grocery bills, and connecting with both your neighbours and the land. They are an excellent way to build community, as people share time together on a common activity — creating opportunities for further interactions.

They are also an excellent therapeutic activity for people with mental health problems or without employment. They can involve a diverse group of people, spanning all ages and abilities.

Learning to grow food off the land, getting back in touch with where your meals come from, is an excellent activity all round, whether done on your own property or as part of a shared plot. A community garden affords an opportunity for those without the space where they live. It is also mroe conducive to getting those peopel out who might lack the motivation to do it all on their own, or who may lack the knowledge or confidence to do it themselves.

+ + +


An organizer and journalist from the Kitchener-Waterloo and Ontario Independent Media Centres led a discussion about media’s role in building communities.

A “McLuhan-ian” understanding of media is an important first step in designing a vision of the types of media we’d like to use, and how we can employ them in building community. This means examining different media as to their message (the characteristics of the media — degree of audience involvement and participation, diversity of views, the senses it engages, level of accessibility, and more — and the effects these characteristics have) as well as the most important messages we feel our media should convey.
Some suggestions for the messages our media could have were: to bring people together in a shared space; to establish opportunities for dialogue and two-way communication; and to have a diverse range of voices represented.

In deciding what media to use and how to best use it, it is important to look at the type of community being served. How is the community defined, and what is the base of cohesion – geographical, demographical, a certain interest, or something else.

Some comments on community from people in the workshop included how community can be measured on the inclusion of the most marginalized people, how aboriginal community is held together by traditional teachings, and how the definition of community need not be limited to people, but can instead be extended to include all aspects of life.

Comments on media included takes on music — on how we should be increasing the consumption of live local music instead of mass-marketed ‘monotopic’ music, and also on how one person’s preference was for silence, ‘which is truth’ — and also on movies, particulary Bowling For Columbine — which one on hand had an amazing effect in changing one person’s mother’s views on a wide variety of concepts, negating the effects of all her previous Hollywood intake, but at the same time it was pointed out that it is somewhat scary for one movie to have the ability to reformat someone’s whole conceptual frameworks, when it would hopefully take a more thorough and involved process instead of being fed these new ideas.

+ + +

The Native experience

Wendy Stewart gave a compelling presentation of the Native experience in Canada and on Turtle Island (North America), both an overview of what has taken place in the 511 years since ‘discovery’ and an individual’s experience (her own). She is Mohawk of Tyendinega.

To begin, everyone participated in a striking demonstration of the devastation unleashed upon Native communities. All 16 people present stood up to represent the pre-European Native population: half of us sat down to represent death from early contact with European expansionists through disease and violence (leaving 8). Those gone represented basket weavers, chiefs, medicine people, elders, and other important roles that needed to be covered in whatever way possible by those remaining. The residential schools were then introduced, robbing the community of a generation of its people; another half of us sat down (now 4 left). Then prisons and other elements of modern society took away another half, leaving just 2 people.

But the culture and the traditions have been kept alive. When the wampum belts – that held the stories of the community – were taken away, the traditions went underground and were nurtured until such a time when it was safe to openly resurrect them. For a long time people would be killed if they were found practicing the culture. In the 1930s Native people were treated worse than dogs in Canada. Being off the reserve without permission could mean a bullet in the head. A Native woman caught stealing bread might be brought back to her reserve, to be shot in front of her house, in front of her children.

Many people do not understand the residual effects, the lasting intergenerational legacy of the residential schools that has poisoned the Native community. Native children were taken away from their families and their communities, and kept away for a decade and a half. During that time they were taught that they and their culture were something to be ashamed of and that they needed to learn a “better way” of living and being. Plus there was physical and sexual abuse.

Then they were taken back to where they’d been taken from, after all that time. How did that affect the community? How did that affect their families? How did that affect those individual people? How has it affected (is it affecting) their children, the next generation?

Residential schools cannot be dismissed as being in the past – their impact is very much with us today.

Native children are still being taken away from their families and being given to non-Native foster parents where they grow up without knowing their culture and who they are. Part of Wendy’s tasks working in a group home was to advocate for the youth, to get them out of the criminal justice system and into an environment in accord with their own culture – otherwise they’d most likely be spending most of the rest of their lives behind bars.

When Native people talk about sovereignty, it’s not about repossessing the land everyone’s homes are built on. It’s more about self-determination and being able to govern themselves. The Canadian government’s proposed First Nations Governance Act, a replacement of the 135-year old Indian Act, provoked laughter from Wendy when she first saw it. It is fundamentally flawed and very similar to the bill that was attempted to be passed in the late 1960s.

The system does not work for Native people. Wendy gave examples of agencies and departments that will not provide the types of service in accordance with Native culture, and also talked about a distrust in places like mental health institutions, that would likely only make any problems worse.

There is a lack of cultural understanding in many institutions that claim to serve Natives, and there is sometimes only lip-service paid to creating that understanding.

There is a clash between two different world views – Relational and Linear – that can lead to conflict. Wendy presented a diagram that illustrated the relational worldview in the form of a medicine wheel. Underneath was a depiction of the linear worldview.

Cultural differences can cause conflict if they are not understood. Humour plays a very significant role in Native culture, one way which it is used is to deal with the stress and frustration that comes with living in this society. Also there is anger and a way of not directly expressing it, not putting it onto another person. Wendy talked of a time when she and another woman she was working with had a lot of problems because they had (and expected the other to have) different ways of managing their interpersonal relations – it was only through others who could see what was going on that they were able to understand what was happening and overcome it.

It is important to recognize the demographics of the present-day Native community: a huge percentage (40%) are youth, and only 4% are elders.

Wendy runs a private business with a partner and takes no funding from the government as a matter of principle. She refuses to be coopted; she says it is a constant struggle, and she doesn’t get to drive a fancy car, but is worth doing.

We all have gifts and a purpose in life – we are all sacred parts of Creation. None of us are here by accident.

If we are serious about creating healthy and vibrant communities, we need to look deep within ourselves.

+ + +

Building Communities

A coordinator from OPIRG-Guelph talked about what is involved in building communities, drawing on her experiences from her involvement in activism and communities in Iran, Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph.

It is important that the process be understood by the community and the people involved as being gradual and developed as it unfolds. Time for reflection, to consolidate successes and improve methods of doing things, is important.

The community is the expert, and best able to identify problems and suggest solutions. Individuals acting as ‘experts’ who wish to impose their solutions will not contribute to genuine community building.

It is helpful to assess the situation when first starting out – to determine if there are groups already working on community building, and how they are approaching it.

It is also good to identify the groups active in the community and on what issues they are working. There’s also benefits to be found in making the connections between social, economic and environmental issues.

+ + +

Urban Sprawl

The last speaker had worked with the United Nations Environmental Program in Mexico City, working on capacity building with youth groups there. The basic approach utilized was to find out what the groups wanted and then to provide them with whatever it was.

The primary discussion was about the issue of urban sprawl. Problems created by the phenomenon included a lack of community, the takeover of farming land and encroachment on other farms, a break in the water cycle caused by too much asphalt not allowing water to return into the ground, and air pollution from excess car transportation.

Solutions appear to lie in pressuring levels of government, as well as to raise consciousness among potential homeowners about the harmful effects of urban sprawl. Actions targeted to bring pressure against projects like big box stores or to protect underdeveloped land can help.

Discussion also touched on the importance of supporting small community-based businesses in the face of the large-scale competition, as well as working with local food producers and helping develop symbiotic relationships.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *