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Is there a Canadian Approach to Knowledge Democracy?

NOTE: This article was originally published on the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education website and has been cross-posted with permission.

C2UExpo, Vancouver, May 1-5, 2017

The C2UExpo (Community Campus University Exposition) is ending today, May 5th, 2017. It is the 7th of these Canadian organised spaces where knowledge workers in communities, colleges and universities come together to share their excitement, challenges hopes and dreams. This unique space of knowledge democracy time after time allows the partners of co-creation to come together as equals in the epistemological power game with the common vision of using their diverse knowledges and skills towards making a difference in their communities. Community Based Research Canada (CBRC) is the national network that supports the movement between meetings, which facilitates the process of site selection and assures some elements of a common vision. Having now had the experience of six previous CUExpos (the original naming of this gathering was the work of Dr. Jim Randall, former Dean of Social Science at the University of Saskatchewan where the first CUExpo was held in 2003), I wonder if a Canadian approach to knowledge democracy is beginning to emerge? Perhaps I am only naming the vision I want?

An Emerging Vision

Let me remind readers that our UNESCO Chair works within a framework of knowledge democracy. Knowledge democracy is about recognising the remarkable diversity of knowledge systems (beyond the Western Canon). In addition it refers to representing knowledge in creative and diverse ways (including the arts), in understanding the critical role of knowledge in action for social justice and in making all knowledge products available free of charge to all. I mention this as ‘engagement’ goes beyond the relationship with knowledge creation to include teaching and learning and other types of partnerships and collaborative mutual activities. The Canadian flavour of knowledge democracy that I suggest includes an Indigenous grounding, a spirit of inclusivity of stakeholders, a generous engagement with the arts and the primacy of diversity. How did these themes play out in C2UExpo 2017?

The opening of the conference involved a combination of a Squamish blanketing ceremony, a practice used in Coast Salish Indigenous communities to ‘stand-up’ and recognise individuals who have made or are making important contributions to the community. Squamish Speaker Elroy Baker led the ceremony. Three young Indigenous women and men were blanketed before the room of 500-600 participants: Khelsilem, founder of the Squamish language adult emersion language program, Ryan McMahon, a comedian and story teller, Ginger Gosnell-Myers, head of Aboriginal Affairs at the City of Vancouver. They were asked, at the opening of this conference about knowledge co-creation to share their thoughts about the challenges of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s for our work. Even 10 years ago, either a prominent academic, a public intellectual or a political-civic figure, would have opened an interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral conference about knowledge involving academics and community partners. Simon Fraser University chose to ground the entire conference in a message of recognition of the role of knowledge in past injustices and the centrality of Indigenous ways of knowing to our moving forward.

The Canadian approach to knowledge democracy is inclusive of a range of players that make a difference to well-being in society. Once a starting point of an ethical, fair and just lens is accepted there is were many stories told at C2UExpo2017 where marginalized community members engaged with academics, local government and even business folks were able to work together. While not making light of the challenges of working with persons with such difference degrees of privilege and power, the skills to bring people together for social change through community based research are continuing to be developed. For example one of the site visits that I enjoyed was to HCMA Architecture and Design, a community-based business where we stood in their office and were led in song by Vanessa Richards and the Woodward Community Singers.

The arts are well understood by the Canadian knowledge democracy movement as both a way of creating knowledge and as a way of representing knowledge. Theatre, dance, music, spoken word and poetry, video images, drawing, murals and much more have been prominent is every one of the seven CUExpos since 2003. There is an understanding that if the goal of knowledge work is to make a positive difference in community, that the arts have a special capacity to link action, thought and feelings. C2UExpo was alive with the arts and never in a more exuberant way than the night of the Culture Mash-Up in the downtown SFU Arts centre located at the edge of the downtown east side of Vancouver, an area of deep poverty and exclusion. Community performers, activists, stilt walkers, blues musicians, street poets and artists of all kinds came together in a multi-storied building full of totally wild and exciting exchanges of energy and hope.

Canada is celebrating 150 years of settler government, 150 years as a recognised nation in that relatively new concept of the nation that emerged from Europe some hundreds of years ago. But recent archaeological findings confirm the oral histories of the Helsiuk First Nations among others on the BC coast that they have been here for at least 14,000 years. The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been times when the movement of peoples around the world has accelerated. Places like Canada have become demographically settler dominated. But as time has gone on, Canada has become a welcoming country with people from 180-200 different nations. Diversity is perhaps the first fact of Canadian demographics. Recognition of what being a nation of such diversity means to schools, to government, to business and commerce is something that Canadians deal with in every corner of life. To be sure, racism, exclusion, and discrimination are part of a Canadian history and are very much issues of 2017. But judging from the range of stories shared on at C2UExpo 2017, recognition of diversity of ethnicity, sexuality, ability, gender and more is nearly always found within the contextual frameworks of the work being done.

Community Capacity: The Challenge Remaining

As I was leaving the plenary on the last day, a friend who works in a community based research organisation in the Yukon stopped me to tell me about having been at a table of university-based ‘community based research’ workers. They were speaking of being able to ‘help’ community, interpret community and facilitate community university research partnerships. My friend, whose most recent proposal for CBR work in Northern Canada was turned down, does not even have the money to turn on the lights or pay for the heating in an arctic zone of Canada. And she is one of Canada’s leading researchers working with communities, Indigenous FNs in the North. After some 15 years now of universities getting with the CBR and engaged research band wagon, the communities that are supposed to be the partners have not seen their capacity to have full time knowledge workers working with them so as to be really equal partners, are still holding their begging bowls! This perhaps more than any challenge will determine where there really is a knowledge democracy
movement or just another academic discipline that will eventually break our hearts.

Oct 31, 2017 |