(Full disclosure: For those who are not already aware of it, Sheila O’Brien is Mrs. KfC. I bet I am going to like this book.)
A Place To Call Home marks the final volume in a three-year, three-book project for authors Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Stirrett (nee Ritchie). Before getting to thoughts on this final volume, it is worth looking at the project as a whole and the previous two books.
The first decade of the twenty-first century has been very kind to Western Canada. For most of the last one, the region felt like the poor (and persecuted) stepchild of Canada. Restricted markets for its resources and products meant arbitrarily low prices. Political power and interests were firmly lodged in Central Canada — the concerns of the West were ignored, or even worse, deliberately thwarted. The frustration was best summed up in the rallying call that led to the formation in 1970 of the Canada West Foundation (the research think-tank that served as home for this project): “The West wants in.”
It took some decades, but by the dawn of this century that had changed — Canada’s future was now dependent on the West. British Columbia had always been Canada’s entry to the Pacific and already had experience with Asian business. Alberta’s energy resources were attracting investments from around the globe, including emerging powerhouses like Malaysia and China. After decades of population losses, Saskatchewan was experiencing both prosperity and population growth. And Manitoba? Well, Canada’s keystone province has always “gone with the flow” — and the flow was now going its way.
All of that presents both opportunities and challenges in terms of what the future might hold: O’Brien and Stirrett came up with a model that was designed to help begin the process of successfully realizing that future. Visitors here are familiar, I am sure, with the literary idea of “oral history” — this project uses the mirror image, “oral future”, as its central device. For each book, the authors sought out and interviewed 40 to 50 influencers from all four Western Canadian provinces, probing their thoughts on what the future might hold and what was needed to get there.
The first volume, An Extraordinary West, was an overview from the 30,000-foot level. Politicians (both present and past), business people, community leaders and artists were all asked to look into the future — the result was a broadly-based look at what opportunities might be in store for the West and, every bit as important, what issues needed to be addressed (global warming and equity for First Nations people were just two).
That first book showed that sensible and responsible energy development lay at the core of the economic future for the West — we are blessed with both fossil fuels and hydro resources and have lots of both sun and wind. Volume two of the project, Catching A Rising Tide, focused on what was required to capture — and leverage — the potential of energy development.
However, as resource-based communities since the dawn of the Industrial Age can testify, a gold rush can have two results: a vibrant community that makes the transition to the post-extraction future or a ghost town. A Place To Call Home (the book’s subtitle is “Building Community, Inspiration and Creativity in Western Canada”) considers what is required to achieve that first outcome. While interviews for the first two books concentrated on traditional leaders in government, community and commerce, those done for this book sought out voices that often are not heard: opera company directors, community activists, spiritual leaders, philanthropists, actors and artists were the sources the authors looked to for this book.
The question we must be asking ourselves is: What do we need to do to ensure that western Canada is not just an economic success but also a dynamic, interesting and inspiring place in which to live? How can we ensure that the people who live here now want to stay here and invest their energies in building a future for themselves and western Canada? What do we want our legacy to be?
The barriers to creating an inspiring society do not mean we should give up. In fact, they make focusing on this task that much more important. Because creating a great place to live is not easy and cannot be laid at the feet of any one group, it must be embraced with passion by many groups. Because it is so much easier to heed hard data, we must strive to keep the non-quantifiable aspects of life in our line of sight. And because our wealth enables us to do more, so much more, than merely survive, we must consciously ask ourselves what value we are purchasing for our community and ourselves with our gains.
I suspect a number of visitors here at this point are thinking: “This sounds a lot like a frontier version of Richard Florida”. While Florida is referenced in the book, if anything O’Brien and Stirrett are the “non-Richard Floridas”. As with both their previous volumes, this is not a book prescribing “what must be done”. Rather, it is intended to frame and open the dialogue — instead of direction from on high, it consists of a wealth of observations and ideas from those on the ground about how the dialogue can be nurtured.
A Place To Call Home groups those ideas under three broad headings. The first is “Sharing Opportunities”: if the West is to be “home”, then it must be an equal society. First Nations people and immigrants have always been important to the West and enabling their success is even more important for our future. A world-class education system, from pre-school through post-graduate, is essential. The second cornerstone is “Building Strong Communities” and the sub-headings for this chapter outline that story: “bring people together”, “enable a culture of contribution” and “embrace our place in the world”. The final grouping is “Telling Our Story” and focuses on what can be done through cultural infrastructure to ensure that artists and audiences are served in the community that we call home.
Those labels are general and directional but to the credit of O’Brien and Stirrett the material that comes under them is anything but and has a wealth of specific examples and ideas. After all, it comes from interviews with those on the front lines and, let’s face it, they know their stuff.
I’ll offer only one example as an illustration here, albeit one that I think visitors to this blog will both understand and welcome. During the interviews, the authors heard frequently about the importance of recreation and sports as part of “community”. That didn’t surprise them — but another oft-heard observation rather pleasantly did:
One of the most commonly cited places that served to strengthen the community by bringing people together was the library. Many of those we spoke to discussed at length the importance of a strong library system to an inspiring place to live. The power of libraries is that they are open to everyone; they are one of the last places where people from all walks of life can come together and not be expected to purchase something. Chic Scott [author, historian, mountaineer] explains why he thinks libraries are so important:
“Libraries, most importantly, are completely democratic. You go into the library and you have senior citizens there, you have little kids running around with their mothers, you have guys and gals with dreadlocks and earrings and they are all in there together. Traditional arts and culture, which I love and I go to a lot, appeals to a more select group but libraries appeal to everyone. When you are traveling around the world and you are in a strange city, cold and wet, you can always go to a library. It’s one of the last commercial free public spaces. We have shopping malls but you are actually supposed to buy something there, or at least they would like you to. But libraries are a commons, owned by everyone and anyone can go to them.
While A Place To Call Home is a story about Western Canada, I would suggest it has much to offer other audiences. Certainly, those elsewhere in Canada (especially the Golden Crescent in Ontario and Quebec) will find it useful in considering just what is happening out here. Readers in the American West will find both useful reminders of their situation and new ideas. I am sure my visitors from the other Old Dominions of Australia and New Zealand would frequently be saying “it’s just like that here”. And my United Kingdom friends might like to take that section about libraries and wave it under the noses of the foolish politicians who are closing libraries there.
Alas, you can’t find A Place To Call Home at a bookstore or even on Amazon. If your interested is sparked, this book and the preceding two volumes are available directly from the Canada West Foundation here.
(A final note: I would have liked the book even if it wasn’t written by Mrs. KfC and a good friend of us both. )