Talking commons in Canada

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The biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) was held this year in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Kate Ashbrook attended,  generously funded by the Elinor Ostrom Award of which the society was a winner in 2013. Here is her summary of her visit.

Riverside park

Riverside park

I travelled with John Powell from the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) of Gloucestershire University, with whom I am working on an international online course on campaigning for commons.  He was tied up in meetings some of the time and I was free to explore the area before the conference started.

Although the town of Edmonton is not very interesting,  it has the longest stretch of parkland in north America, extending beside the North Saskatchewan River which runs through the town.  We stayed on the University of Alberta North Campus which was pleasant.

During my walks I discovered the farmers’ market and joined an anti-GMO march for a few blocks, ending up outside the office of the new provincial premier, Rachel Notley.

Anti-GMO march

Anti-GMO march

Shortly before we arrived there had been an election in Alberta and the socialist New Democratic Party had won: the first left-wing government for 44 years.  There was an air of excitement and it was interesting to read in the Edmonton Journal of the cabinet appointments (50 per cent women) and of the new emerging policies.

The conference is about commons in a global and multi-discipline sense: not just land and water, but common resources including gene pools, indigenous people, knowledge and much else.  I was on the organising committee of the conference, which involved many telephone conferences and skype calls over the last two years.  I had successfully argued for there to be sessions which mixed practitioners (ie campaigners) with academics and which promoted debate.

First Nations
The organisers were supported by First Nation people, particularly those from Treaty 8 (which covers a large part of Alberta) and we learned from them how the British stole the land from the people, put their children into residential schools and abused them in many ways.  Only now are matters being resolved with the recent publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

The opening ceremony on the evening of 25 May, at Fort Edmonton Park, involved wonderful dances (pictured below) from First Nations including the Cree, Nakota Sioux and Dene tribes.  There were speakers at the conference from the First Nations.  I went on a field trip to one of the Alexis Nakota Sioux reserves, where we visited the school and learnt about their way of life.

6 dancer

3 opening ceremony

The conference followed the usual format, running from Tuesday to Friday, with field trips on the Thursday.  So on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday we had a plenary talk at 8.30am, followed by three 90-minute sessions, with about 10 running simultaneously, where academics present their papers at speed with, perhaps, some time for questions and discussion.  It is always hard to choose which sessions to attend.  I went to a particularly interesting one where academics and practitioners talked about working together, what were the barriers and what needed to happen.  I felt that this is just the sort of collaboration which IASC should promote.

I called a fringe meeting for practitioners.  Despite competing events and the tight programme, a number of people came and others have since asked to be involved.  I am developing a group and can see there is a real desire from the practitioners to get closer to the academics and to benefit the knowledge and experience of each.

Abdon Nababan of AMAN

Abdon Nababan of AMAN

On the final evening there was a banquet and the presentation of the Elinor Ostrom awards.  I had been a judge for the practitioner’s award.  At the event I presented the award to one of the practitioner winners, Abdon Nababan of AMAN: the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (Indonesia).  This is a plucky organisation which is defending community rights and has even taken the government to court to prove that the forests belong to the people not the state (rather the opposite to our forestry battles!).  I interviewed Abdon for a video which will go on the award website.

Other winners were: in the practitioners’ category, Marcedonio Cortave from Guatemala; young scholar Dr Scott Shackelford; and senior scholars Dr Fikret Berkes and Dr Bonnie McCay.

Elk Island
After the conference ended we still had another day in Edmonton, so we visited the Elk Island National Park, about 30 miles east of Edmonton, and saw bison—a first for me and a nice way to end the trip.

1 bison

There is more information on my blog and on that of John Powell at CCRI.


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