Rock-hopping the Whithorn Way

seascape near Denure

castle ruins near Dunure photo M. Anderson

“From Canada, are ye?” said the nice woman at the coffee shop. “Canada’s beautiful. I’ve been to Ottawa. We’re from here.” She shrugged, smiled: “It’s nice enough.” Seemed like a typically-Scottish understatement to me – this is the view they enjoy just outside the coffee shop. We were exhausted after a day of walking along the Whithorn Way along the ocean, rock-hopping just above the receding tide-line and scrambling over sea-algae. I’m here on a Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association grant to see about the Scottish “Right of Responsible Access.” The key, said our Scottish host John Henderson, is that word: responsible.

near Robbie Burns underpass

viaduct walking near Robbie Burns museum Ayr  photo M. Anderson

It didn’t take long to see that the Scots, like Canadians, have some trouble with the  “responsible” part of their relationship with the natural world. The legislation establishing The Right of Access in Scotland is recent –  nine years old and part of the devolution of power to Scotland. As would be the case if we were fortunate enough in Canada to adopt similar legislation, the educational curve is still ahead. We saw lots of garbage on our shoreline scramble, even though the views were magnificent otherwise.

glove and sea

beach garbage south of Ayr photo M. Anderson

Maybe Scots, like Canadians, haven’t yet learned how beautiful, fragile, and important the natural world around them is. Finns, for instance, are taught to respect nature from kindergarten. Learning to enjoy berries, mushrooms, and views, and not disturb others, especially landowners, seems to be in Finnish DNA. In Scotland we passed what appeared to be an “Open Access” camp on the beach (see below, in the distance) and while the folks were practicing their rights, their garbage seemed to be a problem.

rock walking with campsite in background

pilgrims and Open Access camp in background photo M. Anderson

Still, one can hope. Local organizations had both cleaned up the last part of today’s walk, and had also set up trail markers. We hadn’t seen any markers on the first leg and had had to backtrack several times as a result. This is probably how Responsible Access is best lived-out: by community groups that operate locally to remind citizens to both get out on the land, and to leave no trace except their paths.

for more on the journey, see Ken Wilson’s blog Reading and Walking at https://readingandwalking.wordpress.com/

bluebells and ocean

Scottish bluebells near the sea photo M. Anderson

The Myth of an Empty Land

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sketch by R.B. Nevitt, surgeon with the NWMP in the 1870s

Despite recent attempts to sensitize Settler-Canadians to the brutal non-mythologised realities of our arrival and eventual colonial dominance in Canada, many stories of settlement still contain some version of the words “into a wild and uninhabited land came our brave ancestors.” Narratives based on an understanding of pre-Settlement Canada as “empty” or “wild” consciously or unconsciously serve an unjust political agenda. They ignore the ways in which First Nations were relied upon and then cast aside by the early Settlers. They conveniently excuse the economic and political machinations that were used to isolate and disempower Indigenous peoples in Canada, to metaphorically and literally starve them, and to seek their eventual destruction by death or assimilation.

In part because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian myths of origin are changing. But it is not yet clear how they will evolve, and it is much less clear that their evolution will lead to a greater willingness on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians to see land in new ways – ways that might foster the Treaty relationships. In  November 2018 the government of Saskatchewan, responding in part to pressure from its Association of Rural Municipalities, significantly tightened rural trespassing laws.[1] This is a significant setback to public access, a backlash many think will only further damage relations with Indigenous peoples.[2] This summer I plan to walk – and camp – in Scotland and Finland, using the jokamiehenoikeus, or “right of responsible access.” These are countries in which a robust “right of responsible access” exists, and also countries from which Eastern and Western Canada derived some of their Settler populations. By studying how national myths are related to positive experiences of public use of land in Scotland and Finland, I am hoping to find resources in our own cultural histories that will help Settler-Canadians rethink their relationship to land, and thus to First Peoples.[3]

[1] https://sarm.ca/about-sarm/news/item/?n=194

[2] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/saskatchewan-trespassing-plan-racial-tensions-1.4891278

[3] Anderson, 2018. “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth,” in Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation, and Healing, edited by Ian S. McIntosh, E Moore Quinn, and Vivian Keely, 148-163. Wallingford, UK: CABI Press.

Jokamiehenoikeus: Why Canadians need to think Finnish about Nature

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As different as they are in other ways, most Finns I’ve met have the same attitude toward being outside. It’s where Finns belong: “let’s get out into nature, as often as possible, and as soon as possible!” Whether it’s picking berries, or cross-country skiing, or walking, or a swim and sauna, Finns LOVE the outdoors. The land is their birthright. “No trespassing” signs are odd and out of place. They just don’t seem patriotic.

I knew this about Finns, but until recently I didn’t know the word behind this attitude. It’s jokamiehenoikeus, “Everyman’s Right.” I first discovered its parallel in England and Scotland. There it’s called either “The Right to Roam” (UK) or, more accurately, “the right of responsible access” (Scotland). But whereas in Scotland and in England the laws that allow public access to private land for recreational activities are a recovery of the ancient “commons” understanding of land lost hundreds of years ago, in Finland the practice was never abandoned. There, it’s so much a part of culture that it never had to be made (or re-made) officially into law. Everyman’s (everyperson’s) right is just assumed. In Finland, as one website says, nature is both wild and free. If you’re English-speaking, as I am, you can find handy explanations of  Everyperson’s Right here: http://www.nationalparks.fi/hikinginfinland/rightsandregulations and here: http://www.jokamiehenoikeudet.fi/en/

fullsizeoutput_28daAs a Canadian who knows and loves Finns and has enjoyed the few times I’ve travelled through Finland, I’d like my country to have the same healthy attitude to the outdoors. Unfortunately, we don’t. There are many, complicated, reasons for this, including our proximity to the United States (whose narcissistic, individualistic culture of ownership affects us whether we like it or not), our legal heritage mostly from British background, and the incredible fact that much of western Canada was once the private domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company granted to that company by the British King (without asking the First Nations of course), and then sold to the young nation of Canada to develop in part by pushing its original inhabitants onto small, poverty-stricken pieces of marginal territory.

We Canadians have a complicated relationship to our land. We stole it, many of us didn’t come from terrains that look like it, and most of us live in cities with little access to it. Our laws tend to favour private ownership to the detriment of public access. I was stunned, when I first moved to Quebec in the 1980s, to find lakes with seemingly no public swimming allowed, anywhere. “How could this be?” I thought, with two young children in their swim suits in the car and nowhere to swim or picnic. And yet, it’s my belief that many Canadians would change this inherited, selfish attitude to land, if we could. This last summer I wrote an online piece titled “Why Canadians Need the Right to Roam.” It has since had 33,000 views. It was reprinted in the Huffington Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post, and the Narwhal, and led to my being a guest for interviews on three different CBC radio shows about the topic. For Canada to have anything like jokamiehenoikeus, we would have to change much about ourselves. Because it’s not just land-owners who would have to evolve. We, the general public, would have to learn to be more responsible. Land-owners will only see the benefits of allowing limited public access if there ARE benefits, and if littering, vandalism, theft, and other problems don’t arise. The Canadian public must grow up learning to be be as respectful of nature as Finns are. It can happen. But it will probably take a generation.

It’s a worthwhile cultural project. Maybe, in the coming years, Canadians will be asking Finns to show them how to live with nature in a more symbiotic, respectful, and spiritual way. We should be asking our First Nations the same questions, right now. In this way, we will learn and grow. And then perhaps, some day, we too will enjoy Everyperson’s Right.