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In my opinion

Universities and rural communities

Joining together to assert control over forests.


There is a rich and romantic cultural history associated with natural resources and communities in Canada, one reinforced by images and narratives of self-reliant white northerners eking out an existence in isolated communities and rugged landscapes, surrounded by pristine and endless resources. A more modern and less positive view of resource communities is that they are antiquated, marginal settlements, wrought with social conflict and racial tension, whose glory days passed when the last resource industry left town.

However, municipal leaders, Aboriginal and government representatives, academics, businesses and community groups recently came together at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for an interdisciplinary conference on building resilient communities through community-based forest management. The goal was to learn about new cross-cultural networks and grassroots collaborations that are initiating transformative change by rethinking rural economies, cultures and landscapes. As the meeting organizers, we contend that universities and natural resource-related departments, in particular, have much to learn from communities about the changing nature of resource sectors, societal needs and the role of universities in partnered research.

Canada’s natural resource sectors are changing: the forest industry has faced an unprecedented decade-on crisis with mill closures, lay-offs and worker relocation; provincial and territorial government policies are being reformed from an archaic 20th-century, big-industry approach; and federal forest programs have been drastically reduced. Constitutional protection of Aboriginal and treaty rights, Aboriginal land claims and the Idle No More movement are redefining settler-Aboriginal relations. Large-scale mining and energy projects raise prospects for development booms, but extensive third-party negotiations, social conflict and concerns about environmental impacts are tainting the bonanza promised by boom proponents. Environmental assessments are repeatedly challenged. Proponent commitment to community development through ecological protection, skills training and revenue sharing is constantly questioned. In this climate of uncertainty it’s amazing that anything gets done at all.

Rural resource-dependent communities have been excluded from meaningful involvement in resource development and decision making. Resource jurisdiction rests with centralized provincial and territorial command and control-style bureaucracies. Most public institutions, whether universities training future professionals or government agencies regulating natural resource use, do not agree that communities have a central role in resource management and economies. Yet the leadership and new ideas coming from rural and Aboriginal communities are creating change, as they mobilize to develop new relationships, institutions, and business models. Meanwhile it is difficult to locate the role of the university in resource regions, even though the professional and scientific disciplines supporting the forest, mining and energy sectors have profoundly shaped how resources are controlled and used in Canada.

However, if we accept that natural resource management is fundamentally about promoting non-destructive human behaviours toward the natural environment, then it is really about the ability of people to influence their quality of life in resource-based locations. From this perspective, our complex resource challenges will not be solved by a few scientific disciplines or agencies. Environmental resource-related departments and programs must change in response to societal needs. But we need more than interdisciplinarity and social relevance in curriculum. We want a much broader and more immediate university response. What is happening is community leadership is outpacing government reforms and industry innovation, and community leadership is prepared to direct research partnerships. This could rebalance community-university relationships, decolonize research and produce timely and useful knowledge.

The conference, hosted by Algoma’s NORDIK Institute and the Northern Ontario Sustainable Communities Partnership, was designed to bridge the gap between knowledge holders in communities, in the academy and in policy networks. It integrated different ways of knowing by using diverse tools to engage participants in active learning. After drumming and an elder’s opening prayer, the format exposed everyone to every speaker, rather than offering break-out sessions, and this unified research, practice and policy and made the community responses visible. A sharing circle that enabled common identification of actions minimized power differences in the diverse group of 160 delegates and led to the forging of a pan-Canadian network determined to assert the community’s place in forest resource decision-making. That network, Community Forests Canada, will foster dialogue and connections among communities and academics. Major themes are building community resilience, community adaptation to climate change and cross-cultural collaboration between Aboriginal and settler communities.

As academics, we left the conference mulling over our learning. We concluded that universities can play a significant role in rural and resource regions by helping to create space for academic-community dialogues that support different way of knowing, are rich for both communities and academics, and foster relationship-building. Leaving our ivory towers, we engaged community members, policy-makers, representatives of other sectors and academics committed to community-based decision making. Universities can support innovation and innovative thinking through diversity – diversity of disciplines, of participants, sectors and peoples.

Dr. Bullock is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Broad is associate professor at Algoma University and director for NORDIK Institute. Ms. Palmer is a PhD student and Dr. Smith, an associate professor, both in natural resources management at Lakehead University. Dr. Smith also co-chairs the Northern Ontario Sustainable Communities Partnership.


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