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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On Reclaiming the Canadian Commons

Updated: May 31, 2020

What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. (Aristotle, Politics)

The word ‘common’ means “together in one”. In its verbal form, ‘commoning’, it means sharing and participating in fellowship, in communion and community. At one level the notion of a ‘commons’ seems a quaint and rather idealistic notion. However, at the level of history it was something that existed in a very concrete and lived form.

We can learn a great deal from the past. Perhaps, that is part of what the movement to ‘reclaim the commons’ is about—discovering how our predecessors lived when they had public access to resources that were once held in common, but have gradually been enclosed and turned into private property by government acts and laws. What were once communal spaces, town squares and farms, what were once our shared natural resources, the land, the forests, the water and minerals, what were once common or traditional ways of knowing gained in the experience of working the land and built up over centuries—have all been gradually and very deliberately eroded, privatized, colonized or destroyed by the introduction of market economies. It began in the 17th century when a modern sensibility driven by the idea of ‘progress’ and informed by notions of efficiency and utility began to displace more natural and local relations of reciprocity towards the land. The agricultural and industrial revolutions, the rise of the nation-state, and with it a commercial, market-centered economy based on supply and demand rather the relations of local life, became the new norm.

What has been lost along with the commons is the notion of the common good, and the human agency and identity that were once shaped through a web of relationships, the sharing of work and stories, of struggle and effort to work out problems together for the good of all concerned.

There are those who disingenuously argue that the ‘commons’ was always destined to end in tragedy, simply because individual users would tend to act according to their own selfish interests and deplete shared resources. This argument was typically advanced by those with a vested interest in dismantling the commons and not based on the actual experience of those who existed in a habitat-based ‘commons’ for thousands of years.

In his book ‘The Great Transformation’, Karl Polanyi described how the shift from a habitat-centered economy governed by reciprocal social relations and land sustainability was gradually ‘transformed’ into a market-centered society to the detriment of both social and environmental relationships. The problem is that in creating a market economy based on private property and the individual accumulation of wealth, control of the commons has been wrested away from majority and concentrated into the hands and vested interests of a very small elite. The result has been an overextended and increasingly dysfunctional global market economy that is now on a direct collision course with the planet.

Is it possible to individually and collectively reclaim the commons? Can a ‘commons’ ethos be restored? Is it possible to recover lost traditions, renew old practices and relearn what it means to work the land in ways that are both fruitful and sustainable? Is it possible in our hyper-capitalist market system to build a ‘self-governing commons’ as a viable alternative to market capitalism? Such a transformation would seem to require not just a practical and cognitive revolution but something like a spiritual awakening. Is this possible?

Some would claim that it is not only possible, but in an era of climate change and resource scarcity, absolutely necessary. Is there a model out there? What of First Nations communities struggling for local self-governance, attempting to restore community-based initiatives, protecting local lands and waters, reviving traditional forms of knowing about local foods and medicines.

Can they teach us something about what ‘commoning’ means? Are there ways to engage with the Earth in places where we now live that could potentially rebuild our capacity for self-determination and responsible self-governance within those habitats?

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