Building Engaged Communities

Getting People Involved

Images courtesy Karl Hele and Sandra Leone


Garden River First Nation’s re-Performance of Hiawatha

The Opening Act

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem written in 1855 that tells Anishinaabeg and other Aboriginal legends through a Christian voice. The popular poem became a pageant that was performed over many decades in Garden River itself beginning in 1901, and in major cities around the world, including before the Royal Family in London in the 1930s.


Members of two First Nations in Northern Ontario recently came together to reinterpret the poem from a contemporary Anishinaabeg perspective. In a production that honoured historic performances and engaged the entire community, young people from the Garden River and Batchewana First Nations donned costumes and became actors.

Images courtesy Karl Hele

Reliving Past Performances

In the early days, audiences flocked to Garden River to see the play performed in the Anishinaabeg language and First Nations’ costumes. People loved the play for what they believed were authentic cultural displays, but many elements of the costuming and performance were not Anishinaabeg in origin. Like the poem, the play presented a romanticized version of the Indian.


Until the 1950s, First Nations were prohibited from performing ceremonial drumming and dancing. Aboriginal languages and culture were under attack from residential schools and government policy. The Hiawatha pageant offered a cultural oasis where actors could perform their traditional dances, use forbidden ceremonial objects, and speak their own language. The performance created a space for the practice and preservation of language and culture, with community engagement ensuring its vitality for generations to come.

Images courtesy Karl Hele

Rewriting the Script

Decades after the play went off stage, an exhibit that featured photographs of historical performances inspired the creation of the Garden River Arts Committee, whose goal was to re-imagine the historic performances from a contemporary Anishinaabeg perspective. The resulting creative exchange has increased individual and community esteem, pride, and participation.

Engaging indigenous playwrights, directors, designers, academics, and the community, participants developed a new play that paid homage to the original poem, but blended the Anishinaabeg and English languages and incorporated significant dance, song, storytelling, legends, and rituals from the Anishinaabeg tradition. The new production speaks to both young and old in the community, replacing the mythic Noble Savage with a reality based on contemporary Anishinaabeg culture. [top]


Images courtesy Karl Hele

Building Engaged Communities

How Research Works for You

Where does knowledge come from? How do we learn new things about the world? We learn by asking questions, by observing, by doing research. We do research every day, comparing information on food packaging, asking friends for advice, searching online or in books. The more we know, the better the decisions we make. Research also informs public policy, government activities, legislation, and consumer services


Images courtesy Judith Harris [top]

Community Research Hub

Innovative Approach Delivers Meaningful Knowledge

The Community Research Hub (CRH) in Winnipeg’s Spence Neighbourhood takes an innovative approach to research. Challenging the notion of who the expert is, members research the community they live in, talk to people they know, and examine their own circumstances to increase knowledge about low-income neighbourhoods.


Demand has grown for CRH’s unique approach, which unleashes local knowledge and creates fresh understandings of Winnipeg’s inner city. Tapping into loca knowledge and accessing personal networks, CRH is able to deliver more meaningful research findings to government agencies, policy makers, and service providers, enabling them to better understand the needs of their clientele. This contributes to innovative solutions to community issues, provides employment, and affirms the knowledge of local people.


“… through ongoing training and support, we are working towards changing our future as individuals and as a group …” – Community Research Hub Food Resilience Report

Images courtesy Judith Harris and Jaya Beange

Engaging Success

CRH is owned by its workers, who make decisions democratically and promote an atmosphere of solidarity. Members generate their own opportunities, providing flexible, healthy employment for themselves and creating an environment of openness and respect.


Low-income people can be marginalized by circumstances. Too often this is reflected in substandard housing, lack of employment opportunities, poor community engagement, and other challenging conditions. Low-income Spence neighbourhood residents, however, are finding a voice through CRH, creating their own solutions and providing a model for change. People are getting involved in planning a new future, a future in which poverty is not a given, a future in which everyone is able to participate.

Images courtesy Jaya Beange [top]

Empowerment through Education –
Watson Thomson’s Big Plan

“To Be and Build the Glorious World” – Watson Thomson

Generations before the Internet brought us information at the click of a button, adult educators used public discussions to provide communities with access to information and the means to affect social and economic change.

Watson Thomson was committed to the development of co-operative enterprise and to the reconciliation of humankind. Arriving from England in 1937, he brought hundreds of thousands of Canadians to political conferences and “coffee talks” via National Film Board documentaries.

In 1944, he became director of Saskatchewan’s Adult Education Division, charged with developing the “biggest adult education program in the country.” The following panels illustrate some of his initiatives.

Study that Leads to Action — Study-Action Groups

Thomson believed that people would become emotionally connected if communities came together to discuss their personal and economic needs. When people trust and depend on each other, and base their economic and political activities on these relationships, they are more likely to be successful as both entrepreneurs and socially responsible citizens.



Engaging thousands of people in his study-action groups, Thomson aimed to transform Saskatchewan and the other Prairie Provinces into an economically, socially, and culturally prosperous example of co-operative endeavour.

“The knowledge we want to convey is not knowledge for its own sake but for the sake of changing and recreating our human world nearer to the heart’s desire of ordinary, decent people everywhere.” – Watson Thomson

The Front Page — A Living Newspaper

Throughout early 1945, local communities and national leaders praised Thomson and his division for their community development and adult education work. No part of their activities would garner more praise or create more debate than the “Living Newspaper.”

Engaging citizens in discussions of controversial topics, the Living Newspaper combined a weekly paper with a live radio broadcast. Citizens across Saskatchewan provided Thomson and the division with their thoughts on local, national, and international issues.

Power to the People — Weekly Radio Shows

Thomson used radio broadcasts to share his fiery rhetoric with the people of Saskatchewan. Covering the latest world news, including the fall of Nazi Germany and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, he encouraged citizens to learn about world politics, religion, and economics, and to use their collective voice to affect large scale social change.

  • Education for the People — all the People
  • Education for Action — co-operative, responsible action
  • Education for Change — inevitable and desirable change
  • Power to the People

— Slogans from the first radio broadcast, Saskatchewan Adult Education Department



Suspicious Times — The End of an Ambitious Plan

By the end of World War II, Communism had become a dirty word in North America. Saskatchewan’s CCF government came under fire for its socially democratic politics, and Communist accusations were leveled against many prominent Canadians. While Thomson himself was never a Communist, he often praised successful communal projects, which drew the attention of suspicious critics.

The Adult Education Division was enormously successful, developing more than 1,500 study-action groups and nearly 100 co-operatives in a little over a year. But because of his left-wing bias, Thomson was forced to resign in December 1945. The division continued to develop and distribute technical and informational brochures across Saskatchewan, leaving future generations to pursue Thomson’s dream of a Prairie Renaissance. [top]

Co-ops: Building Engaged Communities

Canada’s Co-operative Sector

Canadians become engaged citizens through involvement in their co-ops. More than 100,000 Canadians are actively involved as volunteers on committees and boards of directors of their local co-operatives. Credit union and retail co-op employees collectively donate thousands of volunteer hours to events in their communities every year.

Participation on co-op boards at early stages in their careers has contributed significantly to the leadership skills of elected officials at all levels of government. Co-op sponsored education and training initiatives engage members, increasing their involvement in the organization and helping them develop the skills and confidence to take on additional leadership roles in their communities and beyond.

Arctic Co-operatives Ltd.

Arctic Co-operatives Limited (ACL) is a federation owned by 31 Inuit and Dene co-operative businesses in Nunavut and Northwest Territories. Co-op activities, which include retail facilities, hotels, taxis, cable operations, construction, outfitting, arts and crafts production, and property rental, contribute significantly to the social and economic achievements of communities in the Arctic.

Owned and controlled by Inuit, Dene, and Métis people, the co-ops are spread over 3.3 million km2 and are second only to government in employing Aboriginal people. Local co-ops are the heart of their communities, and promoting local culture and heritage is a high priority. To ensure member engagement, ACL’s general meetings are simultaneously available in English, a Dene dialect, and the multiple dialects of Inuktitut. Member engagement has further important outcomes. A 2001 survey indicated that 10 out of 17 members of Nunavut’s legislative assembly identified involvement in their local co-ops as part of their leadership development experience.

Saskatoon Community Clinic

The Saskatoon Community Clinic is a health care co-operative that provides innovative, multidisciplinary, primary-care services to 10,000 members and 20,000 patients at three locations. The clinic strives for a world in which communities, families, and individuals actively manage their own health, supported by a publicly administered health care system.

But the clinic is engaged in activities that take it well beyond primary health care. Its Seniors Advisory Committee provides outreach services to older residents. Through participation in its Political and Social Action Committee, clinic members identify key issues on which the Health Services Association should take action. Its Advocacy Network engages members in government-targeted letter-writing campaigns on issues such as addressing determinants of health, pedestrian safety, and access to health services.

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Formed in 1924, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool was for a time the largest grain handler and agricultural co-operative in Canada. At its height, it served more than 100,000 farmer members and owned 1,224 grain elevators in communities throughout the province.

But the Pool was more than just an elevator company. It played a critical role in the social and economic development of rural Saskatchewan, engaging citizens in co-operative activity that helped them reclaim control of their livelihoods. Pool field staff advocated for farmers at every level of government. They engaged rural citizens in educational campaigns and hundreds of kitchen-table meetings annually. They began the co-operative schools, which evolved into the province’s longest running youth program. Pool field staff helped organize retail co-ops and credit unions, engaging enough people in one memorable five-month period to create 419 farm-supply co-operatives. [top]