Ottawa in June was surprisingly warm! I really wasn’t prepared for it, having been to Corner Brook in Newfoundland two years previously, but it was, frankly, glorious!
Having the 2015 CUExpo in the nation’s capital was a wonderful opportunity to get to know more about the country and its heritage. The conference opened with a traditional smudging ceremony and the host for CUExpo made the point that the university and indeed much of the city was located on unceeded Algonquin land, one of the First Nation peoples in Canada.
I was able to visit the National Museum in the French Canadian section of the city, and travelling on the bus enabled me to see a wide cross section of the city and what modern life is like for Canadians living there. I particularly enjoyed the enormous totem poles and the First Nation style of artwork, which was bold but also sometimes disturbing!
I was also very touched and challenged by the newly released Truth and Reconciliation Commission report summary which detailed the ‘cultural genocide’ of First Nation people’s which took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these harrowing stories of young aboriginal children separated from their families and housed in institutional schools which sought to erase all their cultural heritage, was a shock to many Canadians, who simply didn’t know these things had even happened.
I went to the conference on my own, as a practitioner in my own right and was booked to do a storytelling session. This was instead of going as a member of the UK Community Partner Network (UKCPN), which is how I’d been able to attend the previous conference in Newfoundland. It was nice to see some familiar faces and to learn new things about community engagement practice, but travelling alone to a conference is also hard work (especially for an introvert!) and I think it would have been nicer to be part of a group.
My storytelling session entitled The Castle of Mystery went down well and those who came really enjoyed it, which was great! Storytelling is part of my creative practice, and a useful way to both challenge and reflect back to people, some of the dynamics of an organisation, situation or project.
It was useful and interesting to hear about other engagement practice elsewhere, but to be truthful it was also frustrating because the university I’m connected to doesn’t have a coherent community engagement strategy, or a team of people who might push that forward. In each successive session I went to, I heard about Chancellors and Vice Chancellors and Faculty Deans who’d put their weight and support behind a community engagement initiative, with fantastic results. Sadly the university closest to me seems to lack that vision at the moment, and although there *is* work happening across the institution, it’s fragmented and lacks punch. And without the weight of the executive behind it, it will only ever be thus.
I completed my own paper, ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ about the value of community engagement and a potential strategy for working with local groups, for the faculty I’m working with, but regrettably, nothing further seems to have come from it. Again without the weight of leadership behind it, community engagement will remain ‘off the edge of my desk’ for most of the academics there.
In the meantime however, I am co-authoring a paper about community engagement with two colleagues from the University of Portsmouth for the Research For All journal, which will hopefully be published next year and I have been invited to take part in an Interreg funded project called PONToon. So all it not lost….perhaps rather like a canal boat, these things take longer to move and longer to turn than anyone could have expected!