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Lives in Montreal.

Fences Don’t Make Good Neighbours

classic fence photo of pilgrims

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Right of Responsible Access, or the “Right to Roam”. A friend of mine in Saskatchewan recently said her farm was broken into a number of times despite the fact they installed cameras. “I don’t think Right to Roam is a good idea,” she wrote me. That’s terrible. But the fact is, “Right to Roam” doesn’t allow people to break into buildings. Unfortunately, putting up more NO TRESPASSING signs won’t stop crooks, either… they already know what they’re doing is illegal. Whether the government of SK adopts responsible access, or (as seems more likely) accepts the association of rural municipalities’ request for tighter trespassing laws, either way, nothing changes when it comes to farmer’s yards and buildings. Breaking in is illegal already. In countries like Scotland, if anything, the laws got tighter when the Right of Access came in.  The two problems in Saskatchewan, and elsewhere, are a “they can go to hell” culture, and a lack of enforcement of EXISTING laws.

THE EVIDENCE            The idea is to reduce property damage and theft and to live in healthy communities. Everyone agrees. So what’s the evidence? Evidence-based arguments show that, in Finland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Iceland, countries that are quite similar to Canada with northern climates, and small populations spread over big areas – in those countries increasing access, rather than decreasing it, is what decreases rural crime, vandalism and littering. Increasing access actually puts more sympathetic eyes on the land, rather than fewer. It increases public interest and public attention. Criminals don’t work out in the open. They dump their garbage, or deface a wall, or break through a lock, when no one is looking.

CHINOOK PARKWAY   I grew up in Swift Current SK. There’s a trail along the Swift Current Creek called the Chinook Parkway. It wasn’t there when I was a kid.  I spent a lot of time along that creek looking for garter snakes and later, golf balls. But the area was always dirty and dangerous. There were too many broken beer bottles in the long grass – no one cared. If Swift Current had put up a fence along the creek and increased fines tenfold it wouldn’t have stopped kids from breaking bottles and starting campfires and leaving garbage. Police can’t be everywhere. But creating a public access space in the Chinook Parkway where people walk and jog and cycle has put more people out in the open. It’s made the river’s edge – and the city – healthier, and better, and safer.

GRADUAL CULTURAL CHANGE           You don’t make a rule and expect it to change everything, you try to change the culture gradually. What option will create greater, and healthier community for Canadian people? Does the higher the fence mean the better the neighbour, really? In Norway and Sweden and Scotland and Finland and Austria and some other countries, there’s a whole culture where people are trained up, from childhood, to know how to be on the land – how to respect crops, and animals, and fences, and private buildings. They know how to pick berries or mushrooms and respect property at the same time. Sure, it doesn’t happen overnight. But the question to ask ourselves is: what will be the direction that bringing in a new piece of legislation will take us?

LIABILITY:        Some landowners will say: well, we could never have the Right of Responsible Access in Canada because some city person would come out here and fall down a badger hole and before you know it I’d be sued. FALSE. In Scotland and in other countries where they’ve brought in such laws, at the same time they passed laws protecting landowners from lawsuits. It wasn’t difficult. In those countries, it’s nearly impossible for someone to sue a landowner for personal injury while exercising responsible access. The only exception would be if the landowner willingly and intentionally set some kind of trap for walkers. Shy of that, they’re protected. For more on this, and on the evidence for crime rates, see “This Land is Our Land” (a terrible title, but a good book), by Ken Ilgunas.

THE QUESTION:          So the question is: what kind of future makes for better community? Do you want to live in a land where there’s more fear, more danger, where if you break down on the road you’re afraid to go and ask for help? Or do you want you and your children to grow up in a land where landowners are respected and yet at the same time, everyone feels a connection to, and a responsibility for, the land? Where people can stop by the side of the road and pick chokecherries or saskatoons or raspberries, or have a picnic (making sure to pick up their garbage). Where city dwellers understand some of the problems of farmers and ranchers, because they actually know something about the land and have met the people? The more people feel a connection to the land, the way farmers and ranchers do, the more everyone – even urban people – act as allies. Fences don’t make people safe. Good relations do.

 

 

The Frenchman Trail 2018

classic fence photo of pilgrims

For five days we walked across the prairie. Thirteen miles was our “short day.” We watched for badger holes in the grass, spots where you could drop in to your knee and break a leg. We rolled under and climbed through barbed wire, not always successfully (I have a ‘pic’ in my left palm from grabbing a strand carelessly). Sometimes we walked silently. More often, in spurts, we chatted. During the day we baked in over-thirty temps and at night we shivered in our tents as it dropped to single digits. I was amazed at the wonderfully talented, eclectic group walking south with me. When they found out what I teach, I was challenged: “is this a pilgrimage?” That depends. We ended at a cathedral. We talked a lot about reconciliation, and tried to live it, at least a bit. We sang and laughed and formed a community that blessed each other. It was a holy time. For me, at least, that made it a pilgrimage.

Hugh and Matthew and sign

Huddled Together

It’s going down to 6 degrees tonight. Ten of us are huddled together in a gazebo, near Gravelbourg SK reinforced by tarps against the wind and cold. It’s a full moon. tipiskaw-pisim in Cree. We’re in the dark listening to drum songs and songs from a local theatre piece about the Cypress Hills Massacre. This pilgrimage is about the Frenchman’s Trail, but the suppressed history of the First Nations is never far from us.

CBC SK interview about the Right to Roam in Canada

quarry plaque one

CBC Saskatchewan’s Garth Materie interviewed me on The Afternoon Edition on August 2, 2018, about what it might look like to bring “The Right to Roam” to Canada, and specifically to Saskatchewan! (click on the link below to listen)

Walking and Owning

Walking focuses not on the boundary lines of ownership that break the land into pieces but on the paths that function as a kind of circulatory system connecting the whole organism. Walking is, in this way, the antithesis of owning. (Solnit, Wanderlust, 162)

sorry kiosk closed HayfieldI’d counted on getting my bearings from the Hayfield UK info stop. I had to think again! On April 24 1932, after decades of on-again, off-again confrontations, 400 members of the British Workers Sports Federation started trekking up from their campsites here toward “the forbidden mountain.” The mass trespass of Kinder Scout plateau’s private land became the tipping point in the fight for the right to walking access across private lands. This plaque commemorating the walkers is affixed to the wall of an old stone quarry at the head of the trail. No one is fighting for the right to walk across Saskatchewan. There are no walkers’ groups, no mass rambling movement and no one in Swift Current or Saskatoon is trying to escape the grimy factory life of Sheffield and Manchester in the early 20th century. But there ARE historic, important trails across the prairie. They also deserve public access. And Canada has an important issue that the 1930s British ramblers never faced – the question of Indigenous access. quarry plaque one

Geography & Wonder

Pints at the Star Inn

There is the geography we know and can trace topographically, made up of distance and terrain and movement. For instance, knowing it is about 14 miles (22 km) to the next town, there is a mountain in the way, and  a pub and a pint await us there. But there’s another geography as well, one that exists off the maps even though it overlaps them, a geography of uncertainty, of bodily ache, of imagination and story and solitude, and sometimes, if we’re fortunate, of wonder.

Since the Romantic era at least, wonder is the most gratifying of reactions to a view, natural or human. The walker cannot plan on wonder. But there are ways in which we open ourselves up to it and make ourselves available. In my experience those ways start with being silent, and with not over-planning a walk. That’s the way I felt when I woke up in Hayfield, in England’s Peaks District, the morning of the Kinder Trespass hike. Ready, but not completely prepared.

New Mills Central Train Station

The Pilgrims and the Pope

Pope Francis audience June 2018

photo: Matthew R. Anderson

“The pilgrims of the Spanish-speaking countries pray for you, Holy Father,” intoned an Archbishop (I think that’s what he was?). Below where I sat sweating under the an unseasonably hot Roman sun, perhaps a thousand of the massed faithful erupted into cheers and flag-waving. Pope Francis leaned forward in his plain leather chair, speaking into the mic in Italian. In his address, he reminded us that we are not slaves, but “children, and pilgrims.” I noticed that the metal roof above his head was hinged. I’m guessing that, if there was a danger, the entire roof section could swing down as a shield. This Pope seems uninterested in shielding. A group beside me, from Michigan, fanned themselves. One of the younger women looked up from her smart phone: “I found a lunch spot but it’s at least three-quarters of a mile away. Can you walk that far?” An older man – her father? – lifted his baseball cap and grumbled: “It’s part of being a pilgrim, I guess.” So much pilgrim language. Meanwhile Pope Francis had left his chair. He looked much happier than he had while separated from the crowds. Now he beamed, reaching out to touch people, extending his arms in blessing, shaking hands, smiling broadly. All around me, people were lifting children over their heads, pressing rosaries forward, shouting: “Pappi! Pappi!” Francis leaned over the barrier to a couple in full wedding dress, the young man grinning from ear to ear. The bride, all in white, pressed a photo into the Pope’s hand. As I watched, he blessed it, then, while he blessed the couple as well, a man in a black suit behind him took the photo from his hand, and passed it to another black suit, who handed it to a third man in sunglasses, who walked away from the scrum, idly checking his cell phone. He opened a white plastic bin and placed the photo inside. To my mind, all the elements of pilgrimage came together in that moment: presence, story, a holy terrain, and a material and spiritual transaction. The young couple, via their photo, had reached their pilgrim destination. As had I.

With thanks to my fellow pilgrim, Archbishop Don, for arranging my participation.