Community as place : from a local perspective

[A presentation given as a member of the panel at the opening night of the 2003 Conference of the Community Development Society, at Cornell University, Ithacca]


I would like to thank the CDS and the organizers of this conference for permitting me to fulfill a dream I had… In fact a dream I did not know I had before coming here: to give a lecture in an Ivy League University !


In my comprehension, this theme is a refreshing return to the origin of the concept of community, after all the uses and abuse of the term ranging from the community as a spirit to the virtual communities, and the different interest and identities that become communities. In fact I think we are paying the price today for not caring enough for our places.


In this short presentation I’ll try to answer a three questions : from where, what place do I speak; what have been the tensions and evolutions that have transformed this place; what lessons have I found about the question of territory for the professionals in community development we are.


From where do I speak ?


I am from a place named Québec, which is incidentally also a nation, that is (still ;-) part of a place named Canada.


I have been working for the last 27 years in a neighbourhood of 50 000 persons in the east end of Montréal. A place that has been a working class neighbourhood  but that evolved  to become characterized by the exclusion and the poverty of the population (problems of literacy, long-term unemployment, economic poverty….)


This neighbourhood is quite homogenous, with 92% of white French speaking. A place where the catholic institutions where actively involved, with 11 parishes and multiples religious communities. Another characteristic of the local is the fabric of local self-help, grassroots organisations that has grown here : this place have developed a capacity of transforming problems into projects.


Oh, I haven’t told you the name of this place : Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.


More precisely I have been working for all these years for a local institution that is part of a network of 150 Local Community Services Centres, which we call in French CLSC. In fact, this local institution have been inventing the pattern… that was afterward “exported” to other communities and used as a general model throughout the Quebec. These CLSC are some kind of local health centres with medical services (in site and at home), other health services delivered at home (physiotherapy, ergo therapy) as well as social and psychological services, and community development services. I am a part of an 8 community organizers team.


A last word, for the moment, on these CLSC. It was exported as a model, as I said, but it took as least 15 years for the provincial government to complete the network on the Quebec’s territory. The fact that this organisation has a board composed of a majority of citizens locally elected gave it a large political autonomy and capacity of innovation that was not always to the taste of  municipal and provincial politicians. So for a long time it has been seen as a bunch of activists that wanted to change professional practices, beginning by medical practices, as well as empowering local citizenry.


These tensions could partly explain the desire of the provincial government to amalgamate local territories and build bigger institutions considered more manageable.



The making and the breaking of local territories


Last decades have been marked by two opposed trends defining the creation and the bordering of local communities.


The first one is the trend of expansion, spreading the suburbs surrounding  the cities. Dormitory suburbs, cities built around commercial malls as the sole public space… this trend was concomitant to the one that saw the villages and small cities lose gradually their population.


This geographical expansion of the central cities have been quite anarchic, submitted essentially to the land market laws along the automobile pathways. Low density areas meaning not enough money for building local institutions to serve the local people. But why build local institutions when you can use the ones of the central city, and ask for more fluent highways… even at the price of dislocation and destruction of older, near central neighbourhoods.


Hochelaga-Maisonneuve have been a victim of this trend, seeing the more successful part of his population migrating for the suburb… Seeing also part of the best housing in his territory being “erased” for the construction of a highway. This road project has give rise to so much anger that it was halted, for decades, but after the demolition of hundred of houses ! The situation has worsened since, with the continuous growing of the circulation on a road that cannot sustain it.


We have been fighting for a plan from the Quebec’s transportation department that would protect and insure a local development as well as resolving the problem of circulation. We were on the verge of a solution, when the second trend affecting the definition of the local territories burst into the equation : the new city of Montreal was created.


In 2001 the 27 municipalities on the Island of Montreal were merged into one city. In a sense it was a question of equity, where the old central city of Montreal, was paying more than it’s share of the regional expenses, while the external suburban cities being richer had lower taxations.


But this tendency to create bigger territory, in the name of scale economy and equity has not been effective on the sole field of municipal administration. The health and social services sector, particularly the CLSC’s network have been pressed for years to amalgamate with neighbours. The last Parti Quebecois government wanted to create just one board for the administration of all the local health institutions on each CLSC’s territory. Most of the time, the other institutions were long term care services establishments. The implementation of this way have been realized everywhere else but in Montreal.


The question was hotly debated lately in Montreal, being opposed and finally blocked by the unions, where somewhat the citizens on the CLSC’s boards had a more positive approach : this could insure a more integrated offering of services AND preserve the empowering linkage to the local community.


And now, the new provincial government want to go further and amalgamate all the institutions around each hospital : 7 or 8 CLSC, 10 to 12 long term centres around each hospital would be managed by one board. I don’t even think there will still be place for citizens, and if there was, it would not mean anything similar to the relation to the local community we had before.



Maintaining Local Territories by Building Communities of Practice


One of the lessons I learned during battle about the local integration of services on our local territory is that there is an unexpressed need for the professionals working in those little local institutions to extend their group of reference. Whiles the unions were all out against the “fusion project”, there was a clear, even if undeclared, preference for what was called a lateral or horizontal fusion, if there was to have one : this would permit the creation of some specialization within extended working groups.


Effectively the work in a CLSC on a relatively small territory, considering the vast diversity of programs, customers and needs being addressed, has obliged very small group of professionals to work autonomously. The “lateral fusion” would open this constraint and facilitate a more technically and professionally stimulating context of practice.


This trend was also visible, few years ago, when the city created bigger entities (the arrondissements) as the base territory of his administration. Very few have been said at the time about the loss of relation with the so called sociologically significant communities. The new arrangements were too attractive for the professional development to be opposed for the protection of a somewhat diffuse and difficult to define local empowerment.



Big companies are discovering the worth of “cultivating communities of practice”- CoP (1) within their own borders and even throughout them.



Local organizations like CLSCs but also small municipalities could see this as a way of supporting new ways of sustaining the training, upgrading the working conditions and qualifications of their own professionals without having to merge into big bureaucratic entities. These communities of practice could rejoin professionals from different institutions, sharing and developing knowledge in their field.



Is it too late to promote and implement this, facing the full blown trend of merging the territories of local institutions, reducing by the way the trace of power local communities could pretend to have on these ?


It is never too late to resist the eroding or disruption of local communities. In fact, the resistance have always been part of the building effort. But even under the new big brash merged hospitalo-centrist institution, the need would be urgent to form

communities of practitioners open to interact and recognize the worth and soul of the local community they are working with. In this last case, the CoP would be gathering multiple disciplines that are acting on the same territory, within the same community.



Gilles Beauchamp,

Sunday, July 20, 2003


(1)    See eponym Etienne Wenger’s book.