Becoming Indigenous to Place at Gabriola Commons (by Heather Menzies)
Guest Article by Heather Menzies
Being a commons and becoming “indigenous to place” requires more than just ‘build it and they’ll come.’ It requires clearing space in the community’s imagination to revive commons ways of being, which date back to pre-modern, pre-colonial, even pre-feudal times. The commons’ heritage predates the invention of private property … geared to sharing the land and sharing responsibility to sustain it.
The Gabriola Commons
Like other organizations emerging from pandemic restrictions, the Commons at Gabriola has been reflecting on where it stands. At some recent meetings, members of its many teams agreed that the Commons is more than just a venue maintained by a group of volunteers. They affirmed the five years of effort required to get provincial government endorsement for a new zoning category to be added to Gabriola’s Official Community Plan, designating the 26 acres of land gifted to the Amazing Grace Ecological Society in 2005 as a “community commons” – the first of its kind in Canada. As one person told a meeting: “The purpose of the Commons is to be a commons.”
A lot of effort has gone into simply bringing the commons into being, and paying off the mortgage. Apple trees, blueberry and haskap bushes were planted to create an orchard. Land for growing vegetables set aside for allotment gardens and a kitchen garden next to the building where the old goat cheese-making factory was upgraded into a community kitchen. Trails, a boardwalk and stone labyrinth emerged. Bio-mapping of the Commons’ distinctive eco-niches was done, and an infrastructure of irrigation pipes fed first from the pond alone and now from a reservoir the surface of which doubles as a performing arts space, its elegant tent provided and maintained by the Gabriola Arts Council. Over the years, the commons has also become a vibrant venue for major community events – such as the Fall Fair, the Farm to Table Feast and the Cultivate Festival – as well as innumerable gatherings in the farmhouse, the poetry yurt plus folk dancing, weddings and picnics on the grass.
But being a commons requires more than just ‘build it and they’ll come.’ It requires clearing space in the community’s imagination to revive commons ways of being, which date back to pre-modern, pre-colonial, even pre-feudal times. The commons’ heritage predates the invention of private property. Its roots lie in a community’s shared relationship with land that sustains them, culturally as well as economically, generation after generation. It was self-governing, with regulations and decision making all geared to sharing the land and sharing responsibility to sustain it.
This heritage hovers over many of the things that make the Gabriola Commons distinct. At its core is the relationship, with the primary one being an ecological one. Living such a relationship requires close, even empathetic attention, a willingness to listen to what the trees need, and how far the pond water levels can be drawn down before the irrigation pump must be turned off, or how dry and worn the grass can become before no more wedding parties are okayed for the grounds.
This attentiveness is at play in the activities associated with the Trails and Green spaces team, the farm team and the property stewardship team, especially during Saturday morning work bees followed by a bread-and-soup lunch over which what has been noticed is shared and discussed.
This same ethos, or commitment to listening and respect, informs how things are done at the commons: through a network of self-governing teams, a monthly coordinating council and decision making based on listening for consensus. It also informs the unique approach taken to creating a conservation covenant for the Commons aimed at protecting the linked ecological, agricultural and social aspects of this shared land and the balance between them. It’s not conservation premised on keeping humans out, but conservation through responsible, stewarding relationships with the land – that is, responding to its needs so that while sustaining itself, it can also sustain the community agriculturally and socially.
Indigenous to Place
To be a commons takes time and patience — and the whole community. But with every one of us who grasps this larger purpose of the commons and commits to helping revive an old way of relating to land, not as “it” but as the “thou” in an “I-thou” relationship, we are also learning to become “Indigenous to place.” As Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomi author of Braiding Sweetgrass,” explains: “Being Indigenous to place means to live as if we’ll be here for the long haul, to take care of the land as if our lives, both spiritual and material, depended on it. Because they do.”