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Road stories

A conversation about community sustainability, Canada-wide

By Rebecca Cohoe

Patrick Arnell just completed a serious bike ride.

In May, the recent Oxford University graduate got on his bike in British Columbia in the hopes of making it across Canada. His other goal was to speak with citizens and organizations about his area of study, community sustainability, along the way.

Patrick Arnell
Patrick Arnell

Cape Spear, N.L., was his final destination. Last week, after a long ride across the island, he finally completed his tour and checked into a residence room at Memorial to relax for a couple of days before heading back west to Alberta. Of course, his trusty bike was parked outside.

Before long, it attracted the attention of another avid biker, the Department of Geography’s Dr. Trevor Bell. A community sustainability researcher, Dr. Bell has worked closely with Northern and Arctic communities to support sustainability in a number of areas, from transportation and housing to health and culture.

“I introduced myself at the bike rack, and once Patrick told me about his ride, I knew we’d have plenty to discuss,” said Dr. Bell. “It seemed quite serendipitous that we’d met, so I decided to set up an opportunity for us to share our experiences. I was especially interested in exploring what he learned about community sustainability on his trip in comparison to my experiences working with Northern and Aboriginal communities.”

Dr. Bell also invited his colleague Dr. Michelle Slaney, international co-ordinator for the Circum-Arctic Coastal Communities KnOwledge Network and Arctic regional representative for Future Earth Coasts, to participate in the conversation. Dr. Slaney recently returned to Newfoundland and Labrador, having spent nearly two decades in Northern Europe and South Asia working on climate change policy and practice at the international, national and community levels.

What is community sustainability?

The three met for a coffee in the Science building, and after covering the topics you’d expect, including both the weather, biking on the Newfoundland T’Railway and Mr. Arnell’s options for some of the best locally made beer and fish dishes, discussion turned to the fundamental question: What is community sustainability?

Dr. Slaney was interested in how Mr. Arnell managed to raise awareness about the subject, and how community members and representatives with whom Mr. Arnell met on the road defined it, in particular.

Dr. Trevor Bell, Patrick Arnell and Dr. Michelle Slaney discuss community sustainability.
Dr. Trevor Bell, Patrick Arnell and Dr. Michelle Slaney discuss community sustainability.
Photo: Submitted

“Sustainablility is such an elusive term, with different people having different definitions,” she said. “If you talk about sustainability to two different people, they will likely have different interpretations about what that means. In addition, there are people within a community who might live in a certain manner or make distinct lifestyle choices, without thinking about or labelling it as sustainable.”

Mr. Arnell agreed.

“People conceptualize [sustainability] in all kinds of ways, and amazingly, although there were some common themes, I didn’t hear the same definition twice.” –Patrick Arnell

“I actually tried to turn that one on its head,” he said. “Each time I met with people, that was always one of the questions that I would ask them. People conceptualize it in all kinds of ways, and amazingly, although there were some common themes, I didn’t hear the same definition twice. In many cases, the definitions were very personal.”

He describes one of his very first interviews, with a woman from Gabriola Island, B.C.

“She gave a great interview, and for her, sustainability was very much about intergenerational legacy, and thinking about how using our resources today will impact future generations.”

Her answers, along with many others, says Mr. Arnell, suggest that most people still consider environmental impacts to be a major aspect of community sustainability. He says this particular mindset seems to have grown out of environmental programs, such as waste reduction and energy conservation.

Northern context

For Dr. Bell, the broad emphasis on environmental sustainability suggested an interesting distinction from the northern context where most of his research has taken place.

“If you talk to people in northern communities, I think they might take a more holistic view of the term.” –Dr. Trevor Bell

“If you talk to people in northern communities, I think they might take a more holistic view of the term. For them, it is invariably cultural sustainability and well-being that is important,” he said. “They’ll describe maintaining their language, their traditional ways, their connection to the land and everything that sustains that. It isn’t separate from the environment, but encompasses much more.”

The conversation also turned to the role that food can have upon the well-being and sustainability of a community. One of the themes that Mr. Arnell noted on his journey was that “food is a great connector” and that many people place food at the centre of other community issues, including health, poverty and mental health. Despite the overarching importance of food within communities, though, it is clear that the challenges related to food in both southern and northern communities tend to be different.

“In the south, the language that tends to be used includes terms like ‘food deserts,’” said Mr. Arnell, meaning urban areas with no access to food sources, or healthy food options. “It’s one of the ways that people are starting to link food and sustainability in some of the larger cities.”

Country foods

According to Dr. Bell, the connection between food and community is likely even stronger in the North.

“I’ve been in some of the remotest communities in Canada and on a Friday afternoon people will start saying, ‘I can’t wait to get out to the cabin today.’”

All three laughed and nodded. It isn’t simply a desire to get away from work for a couple of days; rather, a large part of the drive to “get out of town” is to pursue country foods. In many ways, that desire to eat traditional foods goes beyond the food itself, contributing to an individual’s connection to the land and culture through hunting, fishing, berry picking and spending time together with extended family. 

“Unfortunately it’s a myth to think that everyone in these communities has access to the land to practise their culture,” said Dr. Bell. “They would love to if they could, and this is a great source of the food insecurity in these places — people can’t access the country food that they want.”

Dr. Bell also shared some of his experiences working with youth programs in northern communities, connecting with elders and leaders in communities to provide training in trades and traditional skills, such as building community cabins and harvesting country foods. Experiences such as these can help address a variety of issues, including food insecurity and wellness, while also facilitating intergenerational skills transfer.

How do we want communities to look?

The conversation concluded with some discussion of what people want their communities to look like in the future. Mr. Arnell says people are finding new ways to describe how humanity relates to its home.

“The flip side of sustainability is resilience. That’s another word that’s gaining all kinds of traction now. Sustainability is how we live with the planet, resilience is how we live with the impacts that we’ve created.”

Dr. Bell also pointed out that in many communities, these sorts of terms are not typically used or have negative connotations. He thinks we need to find a terminology that is more meaningful to communities.

“For example, “thriving” is a good word because it describes what people want for themselves and their communities now and in the future.”

Distill and communicate

As the group walked outside to take a picture, Dr. Slaney asked Mr. Arnell what comes next, and how, in particular, he plans to distill and communicate the insights he has gained from his trip. He said he isn’t entirely sure, other than the fact that he would be spending a few days in St. John’s with his dad, enjoying the city and letting his trip settle in. After chatting briefly about his favourite parts of the ride, which included both Quebec and Gros Morne National Park, away he went, on foot this time. His bike had already been packed up, heading west, just like Mr. Arnell will be soon, too.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Mr. Arnell’s bike ride for sustainable communities, you can visit his blog here.


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