2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Media activists for livability:
an NFB experiment in 1970s Vancouver
by Jean Walton
It was in part the striking contrast between the sodden, featureless suburb where I came of age, and the alluring cultural hub to its immediate North that made me want, in the first place, to write an autobiographical novel set near Vancouver in the seventies. Combing the Internet in search of images that could take me back to the hockey rinks and logging trucks of my teen years, I hit pay dirt: production stills depicting the rosy-cheeked mayor I recalled from those days, confronting a group of working-class residents who had lived down the hill from us. Bridgeview was a tight-knit neighborhood flanked by scrapyards and sawmills, and that seemed to be sinking into the mud along the banks of the Fraser River.
I had been aware, at the time, of the atrocious conditions of this little corner of our municipality of Surrey—dilapidated single-family homes fronted by open ditches that flooded in the wet season—but I hadn’t realized that Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) had come to town to make a documentary film about Bridgeview residents’ battle for a decent sewer system, which is to say, their battle for existence. Some People Have to Suffer, the film was titled, and while it is not among the hundreds available for streaming on the NFB website, I was able to purchase it in DVD format through their online store. I was soon treated to all the period footage I could have hoped for of Surrey’s suburban and industrial landscape: stained stucco under flapping tarpaulins, school kids in parkas dodging puddles, geese and horses sharing the residential landscape with trucks and bulldozers, and a vintage cast of talking heads. There was the mealy-mouthed Mayor that my grandmother had found so handsome, with his Dudley Do-Right face and his disdain for the downtrodden; the part-time aldermen drawn from the local business ranks, shrugging polyestered shoulders as they walked the tightrope between profit and “the people;” city administrators, weighing the pros and cons of industrial encroachment; and the citizens themselves, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants of British or German origin, set among crochet afghans of the living room, cigarette displays of the convenience store, or the banks of the river itself as they put their case to the camera. “They have an awful lot of homes to get for people before they phase us out,” asserts one angry resident. “And if I have to get a shotgun, they won’t phase me out.”
Curious about the provenance of this film, I hunted down its director, Christopher Pinney, and thereby stumbled on a long-obscured chapter in the history of media democracy. In this article I tell the story of Some People Have to Suffer (1976), and perhaps more important, of the larger state-sponsored—but activist—media project out of which it emerged. For as it turns out Chris Pinney was the regional coordinator of the West Coast division of one of the National Film Board’s most radical forays into community-based documentary, the Challenge for Change program (1967-1980). This film was only the most polished artifact of an extensive community activist project, set in the municipality of my youth, during a volatile era in the history of urban and suburban development in Vancouver and its outlying neighbors. We may live in a digital age that promises universal access to media resources, but we can learn a lot from this pre-digital episode in the history of media activism on Canada’s West Coast.
I propose that we ask not whether media can truly be democratized (it always can or cannot, depending on your perspective), but rather what makes one experiment different from another, depending on how its social goals are framed and how it fits into and transforms the immediate geopolitical landscape that serves as its setting. With its reputation for utopian living, its geographical location on the Canadian edge of the Pacific Rim, its proximity to water, mountains, and wildlife, Vancouver has served in the last few decades as a global model for city planning—so much so that architects and planners have coined “Vancouverism” as a shorthand term for desirable urban design. See for example this photo essay on Vancouver-branded Developments in China: http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2012/05/vancouver-name-used-to-sell-in-mainland-china/.
For these reasons alone, the recent history of its evolution is worth interrogating, particularly with respect to whether and how the average citizen participated in decisions about development. Because it focused directly on land use issues in British Columbia in the seventies, the NFB’s Challenge for Change program produced a rich repository of documents that shed light on the relation of the suburbs to this shining metropolis that has emerged as the “Shangri-La” of Canada. Just as importantly, the program revealed how alliances might be formed between political interests too often thought to be at odds with each other—those of working class residents with a sharp sense of community belonging, and of environmentalists challenging the apparent inevitability of industrial encroachment.
The Challenge for Change Program
Challenge for Change (CFC) was a world-famous experiment that brought community development together with film and video expertise to address social and political problems across Canada between 1967 and 1980. As government-sponsored programs go, Challenge for Change (and its Quebecois version, Societé Nouvelle) was unprecedented in its commitment to facilitating citizen awareness and activism. The idea was to identify troubled locales where social, economic, and political conflicts might be effectively resolved if the residents were trained by “social animators” in the use of film and video to gain a more active role in the decision-making processes that most affected them. [open endnotes in new window]
The program had been piloted in Newfoundland, where what came to be called the “Fogo process” was developed, and where an emissary with a camera was “as much a community development worker as a filmmaker.” The residents of Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, had undergone serious economic hardship when the fishing industry began to fail; more than half were on welfare, many slated for relocation by the federal government. The NFB Challenge for Change program, under the directorship of Colin Low, stepped in and made a series of films in which the local people discuss their daily lives, not for “public” distribution, but to be shown privately among Fogo’s own, dispersed population. The films
“acted as something external which mediated the hostility that might have erupted in face-to-face confrontation among people with opposing views” (Kurchak, 122).
Changes did occur following the presence of the NFB in Fogo insofar as the impoverished residents were said to have gained new confidence in the idea of collective action and, indeed, formed a fishing co-op and marketing board. The government, meanwhile, pulled back on its intention to move people to the mainland, and it altered a law pertaining to fishing boats that better met the fishermen’s actual needs (Kurchak, 122-23). Critics differed on whether these changes were the result of the CFC program; but the practice of using film, and then of training local citizens in the use of video, was repeated in every province across the country. For the most part, the local incarnations of the program were framed either explicitly in terms of poverty and the welfare state (echoing the “war on poverty” that had been launched under the Johnson administration in the United States) or in terms of what we would now call identity politics, offering media assistance, for instance, to First Nations groups or empowering women to address labor or childcare issues.
McGill-Queens has just published a substantial volume of critical articles on the program, and a wide array of the films produced under CFC auspices have been made available for streaming on the National Film Board website. It is possible now for a whole new generation of film scholars and media activists to contemplate these social and media experiments set in inner-city Montreal and Halifax, obscure fishing villages of Newfoundland, and small mining communities in Alberta. Taken as a whole, the book and the films open up a complex set of questions about the role of the state in facilitating citizen access to the public sphere, and of how media tools can be used to address poverty and social welfare, whether problems be framed in terms of a waning industrial era, depletion of natural resources, squalid urban living conditions, or gender, race, and colonial inequities.
While for the most part, the Challenge for Change program has been hailed as having led the way in state-sponsored “media democracy,” questions have been raised about the larger implications of federal sponsorship of a purportedly radical form of media intervention. Structurally speaking, is it possible to challenge a system that itself provides the economic base for the activism in question? What interests are served by the mechanisms through which social animators are employed to mobilize groups of people, indeed, to interpellate them in their capacity as “citizens” of a local constituency, a province, a nation? What precisely is meant by “change” in the formula: “challenge for change?” How does one measure the efficacy of the use of video and film technology, even if the question of “change” has been defined?
Marie Kurchak critiqued the program as early as 1972, in her article “What Challenge? What Change?” Several regional CFC experiments were in the planning stages by this time, including the project that Chris Pinney’s film emerged from. Kurchak had just attended a “recent re-organizational meeting” at which the regional directors “emphasized their concern for long-range projects rather than social documentaries.”
"For instance, in a land-use planning project in Surrey (a suburb of Vancouver), co-ordinator Chris Pinney will be using film and VTR to encourage people to participate in community decisions that affect the area in which they live. Pinney looks upon this as 'a very conservative notion: getting people to depend on themselves and create their own communities rather than depending on remote governments to make all the decisions.'” (Kurchak, 125)
Kurchak’s main concern in her assessment of the program was that “long-term subtle attitudinal changes are needed as well as immediate political and economic change” but “Challenge for Change […] has not defined what it means by social change” (126). That Pinney shared this concern not only to define change more carefully but also to provide, through NFB support, the resources over time to ensure enduring transformation is reflected in the founding Surrey Project document, drafted in the following year:
“It is not possible to change people’s relationship to media and their community overnight or in six months. We have learned that it is a slow process that may take several years and will only have a lasting impact if given this kind of time frame. For this reason, the project as proposed here is conceived of as being a long-term project with Challenge for change support for two to three years.” (Pinney, n.d., 4)
Zoë Druick contextualizes the CFC program in the larger arena of Canada’s federal campaign to integrate the welfare state and those it affected with national modernization. She asks whether CFC social animators, wittingly or unwittingly, might simply be reproducing, rather than challenging, the government’s desire for cooperation and conformity among its citizens. As the federal government stepped up its “war on poverty,” Druick notes, there was a simultaneous “shift in the register of citizenship from the local and the provincial to the national level, an important aspect of nation-building.” She traces a historical government-sponsored trend from small-scale to more commercialized modes of making a living:
“As Canadians became modern, urban citizens, they simultaneously became more national in orientation. According to historians Finkel and Conrad, ‘following the Second World War, government policy and economic activity were focused on bringing every Canadian into the modern age. Subsistence survival by farming, fishing, and hunting was deemed unworthy, and rural life, unless fully commercialized, experienced a rapid decline. As a result, many communities became ghost towns, while cities experienced unprecedented growth.’ […] Urbanization was so rapid that where at the end of the Second World War more than one-quarter of Canadians lived on a farm, thirty years later fewer than one in fifteen farmed.” (Druick, 2010, 339)
Druick astutely points out that
“as more and more features of social life were taken over by the state in the postwar period…film became one of the many educational and promotional processes used to convey the new role of the state in administering people’s lives” (343).
It became a way to “convey messages about the federal state to the general population—ultimately it became an advocacy tool for federalism itself”(343-344).
In Fogo, for instance, a way of life premised on subsistence fishing would be sacrificed to a more modern, “Canadian” citizenship through the subtly working micropolitics practiced by social animators. An NFB report on what it hoped would be accomplished in Fogo is telling. Emphasis was placed on eliciting and recording discourse from groups of individuals and playing the resultant films to other groups, for the purpose of eliciting more discourse, and so on.
“By this simple process we hoped to generate confidence in people to formulate and express their problems as they saw them, for it was felt that the expression of problems is a step towards understanding and solving them” (345).
The report goes on,
“It was believed that the playback of these expressions in the community could reveal the contradictions in individual attitudes and also in group attitudes. It would be a beginning in modifying attitudes, achieved not through dissemination of information or propaganda but through real participation which has the potential of creativity” (345).
The language of behavior modification in this passage suggests that what is cast as “expression” can begin to shade off into “confession,” as participants are made complicit in their own state-facilitated conformity.
In her reading of individual CFC films on welfare, though, Druick finds that despite the state-serving objectives espoused in official NFB documents, in actual practice, more radical aims were pursued by some activist filmmakers and social animators who truly sought to bring about “a radically democratic public sphere” (352).
She bases this conclusion on a study of CFC welfare films made before 1970; but if we expand this kind of investigation to include the next phase of the program as it unfolded in Surrey on the West coast, we find that both the goals of the NFB, and the accomplishments of its regional practitioners, had moved even further from the federalist tendencies evinced in its earlier incarnations to the East. This was almost entirely due to the decision, made by Chris Pinney and NFB film distributor Jan Clemson, to frame the Surrey Project explicitly in terms of land use, rather than in terms of poverty and welfare.
Who defines livability?
The seventies was a pivotal decade for Vancouver, marking its transition from marginal city in a modern world of national capitals, to a throbbing nexus in a postmodern world of global trade. A relatively young city, it owed its origin to a deal made in the 1880s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway [CPR] agreed to move its proposed Western terminal from Port Moody, at the head of Burrard Inlet, twelve miles West to Coal Harbor. In return, the railway magnates were granted 6,000 acres of land around the terminus area, which they lost no time surveying to lay out the streets that came to define the city. In the years to follow, the CPR influenced much of the urban character of the city as it developed. For instance, by leasing land to “those industries that generated the most traffic for the railway” the company ensured that False Creek, the inlet at the heart of the city, would remain heavily industrialized right through the 1960s. If it had been formerly considered an “overblown company town,” in the words of Donald Gutstein, far from the cosmopolitan forces of Toronto and Montreal, it was transitioning by the seventies into its new role as a valuable zone of intersection:
“[Some] cities illustrate the ecological principle that the greatest variety of life-forms will be found at the boundary between different habitats. They are cities of the edge rather than the centre; their opposite is the inland imperial capital—Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow—whose purpose is to unify and impose order on their hinterlands. Vancouver belongs, of course, to the first kind of city. Lacking a major administrative or political function, its reason for being is to be situated where four zones intersect: the Western Canadian hinterland, the U.S. and Mexican West Coast, the North Coast up to Alaska, and the Pacific Rim.” (Delaney, 19)
This meant, too, that Vancouver’s identity, its very economic survival, was to be premised on the viability of its status as an efficient thoroughfare for the movement of goods from and to the distant points it mediated. The land in and around the city was in constant contention: was any given space to be devoted to its “highest potential” as a site of industry and transportation of goods? Was it to be serviced for residential use, catering to the people who flocked to the west coast to settle? Was it to be cultivated as agricultural land that would provide local food, so that the province need rely less on imports? Or was it to be left in its natural state? These questions were urgent enough for Vancouver proper. For its suburbs, and particularly for the vast municipalities lying to the south, between the Fraser River and the U.S. border, they were all-consuming and overshadowed most other social issues of the time.
Unsurprisingly the question of city planning, in this time of unprecedented growth, radically intensified in the late sixties and early seventies. The work of two scholars of urban politics in this period typified the shifts that were taking place: that of urban sociologist Harvey Molotch, and Canadian economist-turned-publisher, James Lorimer. In a ground-breaking study of urban development, Harvey Molotch dubbed the city as primarily a “growth machine.” Beginning with what seems now to be the obvious premise that any given parcel of land is at once a commodity with exchange value (defined by how much profit it can make for its owner) as well as a locality with use value (defined by how it may serve its residents as an environment for daily life), Molotch demonstrated that urban politics was a politics first and foremost of “growth.” Developers acquired land parcels, and then they solicited from local government the zoning and taxation conditions necessary to maximize profits by exploiting the land to its “highest and best use.” City councils sought to make conditions welcoming for industrial growth in their locality through attempts to maintain
“the kind of ‘business climate’ that attracts industry: for example, favorable taxation, vocational training, law enforcement, and ‘good’ labor relations. To promote growth, taxes should be ‘reasonable,’ the police force should be oriented toward protection of property, and overt social conflict should be minimized” (Molotch, 312).
Commercial, industrial and residential growth was touted as offering benefits to all, despite evidence to the contrary that it more often “costs existing residents more money” (Molotch, 319).
In Vancouver, one of the more prominent examples of this sort of development scenario would have been the Pacific Centre, a huge shopping mall proposed to the city by the Fairview development firm in the early sixties. The Mayor who had been in negotiation for the deal, Bill Rathie, was defeated by Tom Campbell who had run on a platform opposing the development. But Campbell, too, eventually got behind the deal, ensuring a substantial municipal subsidy to the developer. Opening in 1971, the structure was described by a local columnist as “a bathtub of white tile, upside down at the major intersection of the city” (Lorimer, 177).
Rathie and Campbell fit Molotch’s characterization of the “special sort of person” drawn into the politics of the “city as a growth machine:”
“These people […] tend to be businessmen and, among businessmen, the more parochial sort. […They] often become ‘involved’ in government, especially in local party structure [...]for reasons of land business and related processes of resource distribution.” (Molotch, 318)
While some of these individuals might present themselves as “statesmen” who want to foster growth for the whole community rather than one sector, the bottom line is that they are there “to wheel and deal to affect resource distribution through local government.” (317).
Because these elites are not “statistically representative of the local population as a whole,” they must ensure that the interests that brought them to power, that is, control over how resources are distributed, of which land is the primary resource, remain hidden from view. Thus
“the distributive issues, the matters which bring people to power, are more or less deliberately dropped from public discourse”(318).
Meanwhile, James Lorimer was carrying out a study of the dominant role of entrepreneurs and developers in the shape taken by Canadian cities and suburbs in the mid-seventies. In the post-war era, local governments tended more and more to leave the amassing and servicing of large land banks to private developers, leading inevitably to what Lorimer termed the “corporate suburb.” Abdicating to developers so much of the planning of cities and suburbs produced a number of results:
Having detailed the mechanisms and consequences of Canada’s thriving development industry, Lorimer concludes his study with a chapter on emerging forms of opposition to the status quo, and points to examples of tentative alternatives to the corporate city in a few locales, including Vancouver. The first inklings of resistance to the post-war craze for development and growth came from citizens’ groups who found themselves in the way of “progress”—and were “expected to suffer dislocation, disruption, even financial loss” because of some specific development project in or near their neighborhood (Lorimer, 238). In some instances, politicians and planners themselves began to take their cue from the citizen-based movement, one of the most notable cases, according to Lorimer, occurring in Vancouver.
At the onset of the seventies, city planner Harry Lash set out to produce a planning document that would encompass not only the city proper, but the entire Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD)—a vast complex of municipalities including Surrey, the largest, to the south and east of the metropolitan core. But attempts to define livability based on “computer models, social indicators and livability indices” kept running up against dead-ends until finally, Lash had a revelation:
“Quite suddenly, early in 1972, we did discover the signpost: find out from the public what livability means; abandon the idea that planners must know the goals first and define the problem; ask the people what they see as the issues, problems and opportunities of the region” (Lash, 1976: 54).
The document that eventually resulted, The Livable Region 1976/1986, published in 1975, was the result of three years of public debate, rather than private deals between developers, planners, and elected officials. According to Lorimer, although there might have been criticism about the “extent of the public consultation,” Lash’s efforts came “far closer than any similar exercise in giving urban residents an opportunity to formulate a comprehensive view of Vancouver’s future” (Lorimer, 242). In the words of Harry Lash,
“The mood of the Region and the overriding issues were quite beyond anything we had expected […] The hard kernel of public opinion was, ‘A resistance to further rapid growth, a concern for personal livability, a desire to participate in community decisions, and a wish to see action’”(quoted in Lorimer, 243).
And although the plan did not result in a comprehensive implementation of its recommendations, it nevertheless served as a symbol of the climate of the times in Vancouver. “Citizen input” had come to be the catchword of the day where “land use” was concerned.
All of this unfolded within a set of unique electoral outcomes in the early seventies. At the city level, in Vancouver, the socially progressive Electors Action Movement (TEAM) was voted into power in 1972, replacing the pro-development Non-Partisan Association (NPA) that had dominated city council for three decades. TEAM had come into existence primarily as a coalition that helped prevent an NPA-proposed freeway plan, Project 200, that would have wiped out the neighborhood of Strathcona and a good part of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Mayor Art Phillips and TEAM were key players in the development of the new GVRD livable city planning process.
Meanwhile, at the provincial level, in 1973 the New Democratic Party, headed by Premier Dave Barrett, ousted the conservative Social Credit party that had held sway over the province for the past several decades. Though the NDP remained in power for only three years (roughly the same period during which the NFB sponsored the Challenge for Change project in Surrey), they implemented a number of sweeping reforms, not the least of which concerned a major land use crisis: the threat to what remained of B.C.’s farmland by developers who were buying it up for redevelopment. In the same year of their election to office, the NDP government instituted Bill 42 (also known as the Land Bill), establishing an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in order to make it more difficult to rezone farmland for industrial, commercial or residential purposes. The importance of Bill 42 cannot be overestimated. While its original intent has been eroded over the decades by developers who have taken advantage of the appeals process by which land may, if deemed appropriate, be released from the reserve for other purposes, the Agricultural Land Reserve is still in existence today, and it is credited with preserving B.C.’s modest swathes of farmland (much of it located in Surrey and the rest of the Fraser Valley).
Why land use?
Let’s consider, now, the twinned emphasis on urbanization and nationalization that Druick had examined as an important context for the NFB’s activities. The initial NFB document laying out the Surrey Project’s background and objectives opened by directly referencing Bill 42 and the Agricultural Land Reserve. It sought to “develop ongoing public involvement and responsibility in coming to terms with the social, economic and political issues raised by land use controls” in a municipality whose “fertile agricultural land” was “rapidly being consumed by urban sprawl” and thus was “most heavily affected by the Land Act [Bill 42]” (“The B.C. Land Use Project,” 1). Film, videos, and other media would be used
“to stimulate local awareness of the issues behind land use controls and to help citizens concerned with the development of their community interact and influence each other and the various levels of government and private institutions presently determining land use planning.” (“B.C. Land Use,” 1)
The project was to be process-oriented, but also to result in films and videotapes that would “serve as catalysts in instructional models on land use problems for other communities in B.C. and Canada.” The types of media products would depend on the priorities of the community itself, and many would function only as “self-development tools” for local citizens, rather than as polished films meant for general distribution (“B.C. Land Use,” 1).
An important impetus behind the Agricultural Land Reserve act was to slow the unprecedented rate of industrial, commercial and residential growth in the Lower Fraser Valley, where farmers had been selling off their land to developers, who in turn (and in line with the pattern documented in Lorimer’s book) were assembling land banks, servicing them, and creating suburban housing tracts, industrial parks, and shopping centers as fast as the local council could process their permit requests. In this respect, the left wing NDP government, at the provincial level, could be seen as working against an unchecked tendency to modernize across the board. To cordon off agricultural land and make it more difficult to develop it for other purposes was effectively to put the brakes on unchecked development, or at least to slow its process.
Because of its large size, the municipality of Surrey offered a representative range of reactions to the Agricultural Land Reserve, as the authors of the initial Surrey Project document were well aware. Surrey was chosen for a Challenge for Change experiment in land use, they wrote, precisely because it was “a microcosm of land use problems facing the rest of B.C.”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). South Surrey consisted of mostly agricultural land, as well as a long established residential area that had “little in common with the north”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). When council backed a shopping center for this area, to generate revenue for the debt-ridden municipality,
“local residents reacted strongly to what they saw as an unnecessary development which did not fill local needs but would instead radically change their life-style by attracting new suburban developments into their area”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5).
In the middle of the municipality was Cloverdale, a farming area, and home to “the most radically pro-development pressure group in the lower Mainland”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5). This
“coalition of farmers and landowners vehemently opposed […] Bill 42 and any restriction on their right to buy and sell land. Many of the members of the group had planned to sell their farm land for suburban development and [saw] the blockage of this process by Bill 42 as an infringement on the democratic system”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5).
The Northern district of the municipality was composed of “working class settlements and industrial areas alongside rapidly mushrooming suburban developments”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). City council (for the whole municipality) was “dominated by the north and [was] pro-development oriented”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). Bridgeview (one of the working-class settlements of the north, but with no representation on council) was
“fighting to upgrade living conditions while city council and much of Surrey [saw] the area as socially undesirable, not suited for residential living. They [wanted] to see the residents displaced or relocated”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5).
Having laid out the differing interests of this potentially very cinematic cast of characters, the report summed up its broader land use objectives as follows:
“While highly opinionated and informed groups exist in Surrey, most of the public shows little interest or understanding of the issues surrounding development. As a result, public participation in community planning is for the most part limited to what are often unproductive ‘confrontation’ situations between City Hall and a particular citizens’ group. Without better local communication networks it does not appear possible to generate the kind of public interest and involvement that will make citizen participation a credible and ongoing part of municipal planning. It will be the aim of this project to work to help citizens and government build these kind[s] of communications networks. (“B.C. Land Use,” 5-6)
Improved communication, increased understanding, citizen involvement, mitigation of “confrontation” situations—these had all become routine goals for Challenge for Change projects across Canada. But what set the CFC Surrey Project apart was its explicit emphasis on land use issues, with a mandate to enhance citizen input into the decisions about residential, industrial and commercial growth, decisions that had hitherto been the sole domain of developers, local politicians, and the municipal administration’s planning office. In this respect, the CFC dovetailed with B.C.’s newly invigorated focus on environmental concerns, the downside of growth, and the definition of “livability,” as it was being played out in the recently elected provincial government and Harry Lash’s GVRD planning committee.
Moreover, as was noted in the project’s initial document, Surrey’s municipal government at the time was “pro-development oriented,” and conformed uncannily to Molotch’s characterization of local politicians as businessmen who catered to developers, and who sought to affect resource distribution through their governing activities. Mayor Bill Vander Zalm made it very clear that he was no Harry Lash, as evidenced in an interview with one of the local weekly papers. When asked whether he thought the municipality communicated adequately with the taxpayers, he replied, “what the people really seek more than anything else is leadership.”
“I think they want a council that is able to make their decisions […] for them rather than all of this “input” we hear so much about. But contrary to what is being said regionally, and contrary to what many local municipal politicians think, I don’t believe that the majority of people have time, or in fact, want all of this involvement that we keep hearing about.” (Vander Zalm, 30 January 1975, p.4)
The CFC animators’ work was cut out for them: to empower diverse constituencies of residents throughout the vast municipality so that they would be able to make their voices heard, even to a mayor (and his like-minded aldermen) who blithely sneered at the very idea of citizen involvement. Moreover, it should be understood that although, in Vancouver, Lash’s committee sought to work out a development scheme that would benefit the entire region, it remained an open question as to how Surrey would fit into the larger picture, and what its role would be vis-à-vis the urbane metropolis it neighbored. In a way, by seeking to bring the Harry Lash-style planning revolution to Surrey, Chris Pinney and his animators were helping the municipality to compete for “livability” with Vancouver—or at least to ensure that the big city’s livability would not come at the expense of Surrey’s.
Finally, as we have seen, in contrast to the scenario sketched out by Zoë Druick, where nationalism dovetailed with urbanization (and large scale industrialization), the provincial NDP government had taken the first step in putting the brakes on unbridled development in British Columbia (most notably in the Fraser Valley where most of the province’s agricultural land was located). Now an activist media project funded by the federal government (NFB) was taking the next step. Although its mandate, put most neutrally, was to facilitate through the use of media the needs of citizens with regard to land use issues, it was clear that with regard to the question of “growth,” the Surrey Project was more closely allied with the provincial NDP government than with the parochial interests of local government. While the social animators deny that their activities had any connection to politics “with a big P” (either Trudeau’s administration in Ottawa, or Barrett’s in Victoria), one can see that the project was grounded from the beginning in facilitating cooperation with the goals of the ALR. The CFC animators were “activists” not only for a local citizenry but for an emerging environmentalist approach to land use that pitted levels of government against each other: pro-development Surrey council vs. its more environmentalist antagonists at the provincial and federal level.
The Surrey Project
While Pinney’s film Some People Have to Suffer is the only public artifact surviving the formal presence of the Challenge for Change program in Surrey between 1973 and 1976, in fact the Surrey Project had a much more comprehensive impact. And it endured much longer than might have been expected given the conservative turn taken by provincial politics as the seventies faded into the corporate eighties. This was owed in part to how the project was initially set up, through a partnership with the newly established, multi-campus Douglas College, as well as to how the social animators integrated the NFB’s mandate into the ethos of community development that they already embraced. The project’s first objective was to establish a “Community Communications Centre,” to be housed in one of the temporary trailers that served as classrooms and administrative buildings on the new campus. Reluctant at first to make a commitment, the College Board members were invited to a presentation by geography professor Jim Sellers, who would soon be hired as a social animator:
“In that meeting, when we first got the College to realize that they had to continue on when the [National Film] Board withdrew [...]we took 52 front pages of the Surrey Leader newspaper, put them up in the room, and we had all the [College] Board members walk around and we asked them after it was over, ‘Show one story on the front page of the year that you can say relates to something that happened in one classroom at one time on this campus!’ And nobody could say that there was anything that we were teaching that was relevant to the front page stories of the community[...]. So how was it a community college?”
If Douglas College was to function truly as a “classroom without walls,” to “make sure the living rooms of the community are the classrooms of the college,” Sellers argued that the NFB Challenge for Change process, “a really important way of democratizing learning,” could be used as a tool to achieve that goal (Driscoll and Sellers, March, 2010).
The Community Communications Center served as a headquarters from which the Surrey Project animators offered workshops in how to use the new Sony VTR Port-a-pak technology, edited half-inch videotapes they had taken, and helped citizens strategize about how best to bring attention to the issues that most concerned them. With generous funding from the Provincial government (Victoria committed $29,000 to the project in June of 1974, for instance), Pinney hired local personnel to work as social animators for the program. In addition to Sellers, former air charter entrepreneur Jim Gillis was brought on board primarily for his skills at gaining the confidence of the business-minded mayor and council members. Gillis recalls being shown a video camera for the first time, with its cutting-edge capacity to play back a scene that had just been recorded, and recognizing its value as a “marketing” tool for selling a citizen-based point of view to decision makers in government. From his perspective as a businessman mediating between residents and policy-makers who might be at odds over the details and desirability of industrial development, deploying video was a matter of “selling” a position on a given issue. Gillis helped hire Norma Taite, an artist who with her husband Ted was building a house in South Surrey and was looking for a way to become more involved in her community. Gillis, Taite, and Sellers continued with the program until well after the NFB pulled out and Chris Pinney returned East. After 1976, the activities of the Community Communications Centre expanded to include some of the Douglas College campuses in other municipalities, and another animator, David Driscoll, was hired from the college faculty.
The social animators kept abreast of local land use issues by combing the local newspapers, attending all municipal council meetings, and showing up at the meetings of local citizens’ groups. Their Community Communications Centre quickly gained public visibility, so that citizens began to show up at the trailer asking for assistance. There was almost no locality in the 122 square mile municipality where the Surrey Project was not in some way involved.
Local initiatives included helping residents form a co-op to take over their “poorly maintained and managed apartment” building—but also to make a video of the process to share their experience with tenants in another part of the municipality, and to bring it to City Hall in an effort to “get a bylaw passed that [would] ensure the proper maintenance of apartment buildings in Surrey” (Pinney, Report, August 1975).
In the Big Bend and Port Kells areas, both bordering the Fraser River, the CFC animators helped local residents make concise videos addressing proposals for landfill, oil refinery, and industrial parks in the area. As one report noted:
“The Bend [...] is one of the fresh water marshes on the Fraser River and is a unique ecological and recreational area. Surrey [Council], however, is considering a plan to industrialize the bend, and the area has also been chosen as a prime site for a sanitary landfill by the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Working with the environmental institute of Douglas College and with the industrial development officer for Surrey, we completed a tape in September outlining the ecological considerations and the industrial proposals for the area.” (Pinney, Report, September/October 1975)
These industrial proposals were a clear example of the sort of “service” role Vancouver sought to assign to Surrey and other municipalities south of the Fraser River, as the GVRD plan took shape. As a result of several citizen-based presentations about the area, the council was persuaded to oppose the sanitary landfill, though industrial development along the foreshore remained a bone of contention for years to come.
On another front, Surrey Project animators helped citizens’ delegations prepare media briefs to persuade council to avert a proposed petro-chemical plant in the Hazelmere Valley, in South Surrey. By this time, the social animators were providing closed-circuit television coverage of the council meetings for the crowds of residents unable to pack into the chambers (Pinney, Report, June/July 1975). This led, eventually, to coverage of council meetings for local cable television. Indeed, compelling the local cable stations to adhere to the Canadian Radio-Television Commission’s mandate to provide public access to the airwaves was another of the Surrey Project’s successful campaigns.
Pinney also participated in the Satellite Tele-Education Program (S.T.E.P.), a pioneering effort to deliver college education via satellite, bringing together social animators around the province to broadcast some of the process videos made under the auspices of the CFC. Programming included clips from Some People Have to Suffer (as an example of community planning); and two slide-show videos (videotaped still images accompanied by music and voiceover), one about attempts to save the Seven Sister’s mountain range from being heavily logged and the other about the importance of preserving agricultural areas in B.C., with tips on how to prevent parcels of farmland from being sold and developed. Broadcasts of the film and process videos were followed by call-in sessions, during which residents from far-flung corners of the province talked with Pinney and other animators in the studio.
Despite the CFC program’s origins with the National Film Board, if a form of media other than moving images seemed more effective, then social animators did not hesitate to develop it in aid of the citizens who sought their assistance. This was true of a pamphlet they designed to arm the ordinary citizen against developers (and the politicians who catered to them) who had figured out how to exploit the loopholes in the Agricultural Land Reserve. As soon as the Act was passed, recalls David Driscoll, “it was immediately assailed by the development industry, and continues to be assailed by development industry:” applications for exemptions flooded the Land Commission, as various parties sought to redevelop farmland for profit motives. Perceiving that only informed citizens could counter this manipulation of the Land Commission’s aims, the Community Communications Center produced and distributed “Preserving Agricultural Land: Guidelines for Action,” a ten-page handbook outlining how the average citizen might participate in the protection of endangered agricultural land in their jurisdiction. The flyer opened with a list of the kinds of parties “applying to have the land removed from the ALR”: the developer, the speculator, the government (from municipal right up to federal and crown corporations), and the farmer. “By the time the average citizen has become aware that land may be taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve” the pamphlet warned, developers and speculators will have already contacted local government, and started the wheels rolling even before the issue is raised at a regular council meeting. With the backing of the local council (often eager to benefit from perceived gains to be made by commercial or industrial development of a tract of farmland) the case is then taken to the Land Commission, “and now it is public,” the handbook remarks.
“Or is it public knowledge? There is no guarantee the newspaper will report a request for support from council on an appeal to exclude land from the ALR or on an appeal to the Land Commission. Council meetings must be attended by yourself or members of your group. The Land Commission will provide interested citizens with a schedule of up-coming appeals. Even better than waiting until the issue is public, if you have regular contact with elected officials or government bureaucrats, they will often warn you of up-coming issues.”
The pamphlet offered clear advice about how to anticipate the various tactics developers might use to convince authorities that removing farmland from the ALR will be for the “public good,” “even if the prime motivating factor is private profit.” The citizen was advised to
“analyze the arguments and carefully distinguish between public good and a private profit. If it is a government department making the appeal, there may be private interests who will profit.”
Readers of the pamphlet were even coached in Saul Alinsky-style strategies for winning their political battle: being prepared to anticipate the opposition’s arguments, learning not to stray from the central issue, and knowing what traits make a “skilled spokesperson” for their cause.
Some People Have to Suffer
One of the most complex land use problems to have been mediated by the Surrey Project was that documented in Pinney’s film Some People Have to Suffer. While the social animators consider this film to be “only the tip of the iceberg” where their work in Surrey was concerned, it nevertheless serves as a kind of paradigmatic example of how the local council operated, and what any citizen-based movement was up against.
In the early years of its establishment as a residential neighborhood, because of its proximity to the riverfront, Bridgeview was considered to be a desirable place to homestead. But by the 1950s, its attractiveness had declined, in part because it had become encircled by industry, in part because it lacked the sewer systems that had been provided to other residential areas throughout the municipality. Because of the boggy ground along the river’s edge, residents’ original septic tanks began to fail, causing contaminated effluent to seep into the rainwater run-off ditches that fronted their ranch style houses and bungalows. Indeed, as Jim Sellers puts it, the city assured
“deliberate degrading of the drainage system by not cleaning the ditches and fixing dyke gates. It was a willful neglect intended to render the drainage system dysfunctional” (Sellers, e-mail, 10/21/2011).
Council had promised to provide sewers in the fifties, but delayed for over twenty years, and so it was that by the time the Challenge for Change Program arrived, the Bridgeview residents, still with the same leaky septic tanks, found themselves on the verge of eviction from their own homes, homes into which many had sunk their life’s savings.
The Surrey Project worked closely with two of Bridgeview’s community leaders, Otto Wittenberg and Alice Wilcox, who featured in Pinney’s film about the neighborhood’s struggle. Over three years, Norma Taite, Jim Gillis, and Jim Sellers attended and videotaped Bridgeview committee meetings, council meetings, and a crucial meeting with representatives from the Provincial Government. Meanwhile, Chris Pinney and his staff filmed formal interviews (in color 16mm) with residents, Surrey administrative officials, Mayor Vander Zalm and some of the aldermen. By 1976, as the NFB was preparing to hand off the Community Communications Centre to Douglas College and its local administrators, Pinney completed the film, just in time to screen it at the UN Habitat for Humanity Conference being held in Vancouver that summer. After viewing the film, Pinney recalls, conferees were invited to take an hour’s bus ride to visit the rat-infested ditches of Bridgeview in person, and bear witness to the embarrassing fact that the “third world” that Habitat had been discussing, as though it were half a globe away, could be found only twenty miles from the conference site (Conversation with Pinney, 12/18/2009).
Like two other films made under the auspices of the Challenge for Change program, Some People Have to Suffer served to showcase some of the process video footage that was generated by social animators and their constituencies. VTR St Jacques (Bonnie Klein, 1969) and VTR Rosedale (Len Chatwin, 1974) each depict the presence of social animators in an economically depressed area (an impoverished district of Montreal and an ailing Alberta mining community, respectively), detailing how they organized and shot footage of meetings at which local residents identified their most pressing problems, how these same residents were trained to use the VTR equipment, and how this citizen-produced footage functioned to bring about significant change in the area. The agency of the CFC social animators is obvious in these short films—we can see how their intervention played a role in changing the local citizens’ sense of their power as a political group, and their growing control over decision-making processes that would affect their lives.
In the case of Some People, however, Pinney focused on the drama as it unfolded among the Bridgeview residents, elected officials, and Surrey planning administrators such as the town manager, the industrial planner, and the municipal engineer. Jim Gillis, Norma Taite, and Jim Sellers worked behind the scenes,
When the municipal and provincial governments disagreed about how
best to resolve the sewering issue, the Surrey Project shrewdly helped residents do some nitty-gritty sleuthing:
“To try and get down to the reality of the difference between the provincial and municipal proposals, we are now helping the residents to organize an investigation of all land purchases and turnover in Bridgeview in the last ten years. This should soon show whether or not land speculators will be, as the province says, the prime beneficiaries of the municipal program.” (Pinney, Report, September/October 1975)
But it would appear that Pinney made the decision to foreground the battle between city officials and the citizens themselves, rather than the mediating role of the Surrey Project. As a result, Taite, Sellers, and Gillis are not depicted in the film, either in their organizing capacity or in their role as media instructors. We see instead a community already trained and active in the pursuit of their goals, challenging the local bureaucrats to bring about long overdue changes to their physical environment. This narrative has two consequences. First, it means that viewers of the film get no glimpse of the local social animators in action, and thus no sense of the methodological process by which the Challenge for Change program made a difference in what unfolded during the mid-seventies in this neighborhood that typified how land use conflicts intersected with class struggles. But it also means that the residents themselves are not shown in an epistemologically inferior position vis-à-vis the NFB and its agents, in need of guidance and direction. Rather, if anything, the camera is turned on the bureaucrats as they are made to “confess” (directly or indirectly) their own implication in Bridgeview’s land use woes.
Concerned no doubt to construct a coherent narrative out of a complex, many-faceted political situation that had unfolded over a long period of time, Pinney structured the film fairly conventionally, opening with an aerial shot to establish Bridgeview’s geographical locale, and following with talking heads, video documentary footage of council and committee meetings during which the protagonists and their antagonists are shown in conflict with each other, and descriptive color sequences illustrating the land under contestation, houses in need of repair, overflowing ditches, proximity to the river, and industrial encroachment. Boyce Richardson, an NFB documentarist in his own right, provides a voiceover that functions less like the kind of “voice-of-god” narration that had fallen into disfavor by this era of verité-style filmmaking, and more like the discursive mortar that holds the disparate building-blocks of the film together. Insofar as Some People was intended as a kind of “animator” film—that is, a tool not so much of instruction as of instigation—Richardson’s voice extends matter-of-fact advice for the would-be citizen activist. Besides offering vocal “establishing shots” and economically filling in backstory details through an audio-montage, it describes the developing strategies of the citizens as they press forward with their demands, and provides suggestive hints about how the viewer might follow suit. It also functions as an ironic bridge, linking something said in an interview to a wryly chosen successive shot—as when, for example, Mayor Vander Zalm ponders whether the Bridgeview area might be better suited to “other purposes,” after which Richardson informs us that “other purposes turned out to be industry” as we transition from the Mayor’s rosy-cheeked face to the iconic shot of a bulldozer dredging mud up at the river’s edge. Generally, the voiceover supplies a kind of present pluperfect, from which the complex series of unfolding events and interviews can be narrativized.
The Mayor and council members are introduced by one of the aldermen, self-styled working-class hero Ed McKitka who opens with the pronouncement that Surrey is a “two hundred million a year” business. Although he doesn’t object to “everyone getting involved,” he wonders what his fellow council-members, themselves businessmen, have to contribute.As the film unfolds, it would seem, indeed, as if these “small town politicians” (in the words of the voiceover) conform fairly closely to the picture given by Molotch of the “special sort of person” who becomes “involved” in government “for reasons of land business and related processes of resource distribution.” What is extraordinary about the film is how deftly Pinney, with the behind-the-scenes help of his social animators, brings into public discourse what Vander Zalm and his colleagues might have wished to remain hidden—or at least neglected long enough that eventually the neighborhood in Bridgeview would deteriorate to the point that residents would be forced (because of health issues) to evacuate, leaving the district to be completely industrialized.
Three scenes worth emphasizing
In a blurry black-and-white video sequence, shots of the Mayor, spluttering as he tries to defend himself at a Bridgeview committee meeting, are edited with a shot of a community member who emerges from the exasperated crowd to confront him. The camera returns to the Mayor for a reaction shot, jerkily zooming in to capture his uncertain face. This was the sort of footage salvaged from hours of process videos shot by the animators, and giving a feel of immediacy to the story as it unfolded. As the sequence concludes, dejected residents rising from their seats to disperse, the voice of Alderman Fred Beale is heard to comment that although the people “down there” are to be commended for their “esprit de corps,” he is looking at it from the point of view of the municipality as a whole.
“Unfortunately when you do something in a municipality of this size, some people have to suffer, and it may be in this case that the people of Bridgeview have to suffer.”
At one point, Pinney interviews Wittenberg and Wilcox on a vacant lot near their neighborhood. Wittenberg refers to a map he has showing “umpteen dozens of holding companies that have bought in here […] all the biggies.” When Pinney comments that the area is not supposed to be worth anything, Wittenberg agrees and adds,
“But then the mayor’s turned around, or not the mayor himself, but his brother, and they bought this piece of property that we’re standing on, and they paid the fantastic price of a hundred thousand dollars for it.”
Wilcox adds that she didn’t think any land in Bridgeview was of that value, “because everyone has told us the land has no value, and the sooner people move out, the better it will be for them.” This sequence is followed by a nonchalant Vander Zalm defending the rights of “these real estate people” to “go in there” since the land was a good investment. “That’s the system, it’s permitted, it’s allowed.” But whether in fact “this is council’s fault, no, I don’t agree,” he concludes, as though the “real estate people” and the council members are unrelated to each other.
In another scene, the camera pans from water lapping at a pebbly shore up to a mill surrounded by trucks, a chaos of loose logs, and a looming gravel pit. Wittenberg is heard to comment on how what used to be beautiful has been made ugly by industrial development. As his face comes into view, he announces that the people of Bridgeview want to
“preserve this area for the people of Surrey to use for fishing or other recreational uses because it’s actually the only piece of Fraser River foreshore where an access for the people could be made to the river.”
Scenes such as this contradict the assumption that class and environmental politics are necessarily at odds. In this case, at least, the working class residents of Bridgeview were fighting not only for their own basic services but for a cleaner waterfront that would benefit the whole municipality. In a rejoinder to Beale’s earlier remark, the residents of Bridgeview are here recast not as those who would have to “suffer” for the good of the larger community, but as the vanguard of a movement to save the Fraser River (and those who lived south of it) from an industrial demise.
Overall, the dramatic tension of Some People depends on the question of whether the community will get their sewers. Beyond that, the question of social change involves the extent to which these same citizens, and others like them (presumably future audiences of the film) will have learned how to take the most effective role in government decision-making processes in the future.
However, to the extent that the film also reveals the self-serving motivations and actions of local politicians, who in this case seem to be invested in the promotion of industrial development at all costs (and to be profiting from it), one must also ask whether the “social change” sought by the film includes changes in the behavior of elected officials, and their relationship to developers and land speculators. Though it might seem naïve to hope that local government will “change,” that is, consider the long term impact of encroaching on the natural and agricultural resources of the municipality (and the province), then at least the goal of a film like Some People might perhaps be to inform the average citizen about the complexities of what they have to contend with—i.e. how best to evaluate the true interests of their elected officials (see through their public statements) and then figure out how to influence them to respond to the needs even of the least privileged of their constituencies.
Subsequent historical events lent an additional ironic tang to the film for B.C. viewers who happened to see it: Vander Zalm became premier of the province in 1986, and for the next five years chipped away at many of the environmentally sound land use innovations instituted by the NDP in the seventies.
One might ask whether a film like Some People Have to Suffer amounts to nothing more than coaching low-income homeowners to compete with the NIMBY tactics engaged by more well-heeled citizens. That the Surrey Land Use Project sought to go beyond the immediate problem of how to keep undesirable development out of one’s own backyard is reflected in Pinney’s plans for subsequent film projects. In a report anticipating the third and final phase of the project, Pinney described its “most important objective” as the development of “a series of films designed to provide an overview on land management.” These films would cover:
Bringing out the “structural relationship” among the various constituencies involved, the films were to provide “communities throughout Canada with a perspective on the dynamics of land use planning.” Some People was meant, thus, to be the first in this series, whose goal would be to make visible, as Molotch would put it, the very “distributive matters” (“who, in material terms, gets what, where, and how”) that are normally kept out of public discourse (Molotch, 313). Regrettably, his ambitious proposal never came to fruition, as the Challenge for Change program wound down and funds dried up.
Pinney and his colleagues made certain that the Community Communications Centre would outlive the NFB’s initial presence at Douglas College, however, continuing to serve the needs of the local citizenry. This they did by structuring it, from the beginning, as an “outreach center” rather than an institute, and stressing that it “must be perceived as a catalytic action-oriented facility that is interested in helping people define their own priorities and interests” (Pinney to Day, 18 April 1975, letter p.2). The CCC would continue to draw from college resources and faculty expertise but remain autonomous from its formal administrative and curricular structure. Under the directorship of Jim Gillis, the CCC continued its operations until 1983, when it was dissolved and many of its activities subsumed under the auspices of the Continuing Education Program, which Gillis also directed.
The land use mandate of the project was kept alive by Norma Taite and Barry Leach, founder of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Douglas College. Together, they produced a six-part video series that explored the history of the Fraser River, and argued for measures that would reverse the industrial damage being done to it. Thanks to the groundwork already established by the Challenge for Change program, they secured co-sponsorship for the series from several local cable stations, each of which aired the final program in 1978.
Working from the Community Communications Center, Taite, Sellers, Gillis and Driscoll drifted away from a strict focus on land use issues, and even from the practice of “social animation” insofar as it entailed the rallying and empowerment of discrete citizens’ groups. Projects included a video titled “Cheryl Rides a Pony,” for use as a training device in the therapeutic riding movement, and another video demonstrating the need for wheelchair access in all public arenas. What they see now as one of their most valuable accomplishments has little to do with “fighting city hall,” and more with private social enterprise: the development of a series of large cards with images and words, for use by teachers and other educators to help children recognize (and report) inappropriate touching. Called “C.A.R.E.” (Child Abuse Research and Education, or in its most recent guise, “Challenge Abuse through Respect Education”) the program grew from a locally implemented educational packet to an internationally distributed kit, including instructional videos for teachers and original song recordings for children, and self-funded through marketing to institutions (most recently, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church). Interestingly, Sellers and Driscoll see the Community Communications Centre, in retrospect, as “an animation center that became what in small business you call an incubation center […] for social enterprise” (Driscoll, Interview, 2010). “What was truly remarkable [about C.A.R.E.]” says Jim Sellers, “is that elected representatives of all the major political parties and agencies left, right, and centre (including the RCMP) were equally involved in its development.” (E-mail, 10/21/2011).
The shift in terminology to terms like “social enterprise” mirrors a more generalized shift in approach to “social change” as the decades unfolded: from an era of Saul Alinsky-style grassroots organizing, where citizens’ groups were trained in how to confront elected officials who might not have their best interests in mind, to a more recent era dominated by privately developed social enterprise projects. Small-scale local animation, you might say, was being supplanted by social initiatives that sought to compete in the global marketplace. Even Chris Pinney has shifted away from his grassroots filmmaking days; when I tracked him down in 2010, he was the Director of Research and Policy at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.
But the Surrey Project’s early focus on land use is still relevant even today, as the term “Vancouverism” has come, for some urban planners and architects, to represent an ideal of city planning, at once livable and sustainable. The story of the Challenge for Change program in Surrey suggests that “Vancouverism” may inevitably rely for its sustainability on a nearby “Surreyism”—that is, a suburban service area whose political custodians too readily cater not only to developers eager for a profit, but to a more urban metropolitan neighbor seeking to distance itself from the less appetizing, but necessary components of sustainable city living. In the words of one urban geographer:
“the contention that Vancouver represents an urban paradise is not without challenge […]. Major concerns around growing income inequality, lack of affordable housing, uncertain economic prospects and a large ecological footprint raise questions around its sustainability and whether all of its citizens find it so lovable. Furthermore, outside of the City of Vancouver, much of the metropolitan region resembles the sprawling, automobile-focused development found elsewhere in North America.” (Owens, 3)
What remains valuable today in the Challenge for Change project in Surrey is not only that an oppressed people came to find their voice through self-representation; nor even that they were able to objectify the officials who were exploiting them. Nor was it that during the official presence of the NFB in Surrey, dozens of citizens’ groups solved their most pressing immediate social and material problems (indeed, Bridgeview did, after all, get sewers, though forty years later, they are again in need of replacement). Rather, it was, as Jim Sellers has noted, that local citizens continued for at least another ten years to enjoy access to the know-how, resources, and expertise necessary to take an ongoing role in the decision-making processes regarding the very “livability” of their natural and built environment, precisely because
“Pinney and Clemson and CFC had the foresight to get their process vested in the community via the college, creating the CCC [Community Communications Center]. As it embedded itself, it evolved to serve other community needs. By lasting a decade, this ‘experiment’ in activist-participant media moved beyond being just an experiment.” (Sellers, e-mail, 10/21/2011).
Intervening in the larger issues of urban planning for this very desirable West Coast region, the Surrey Project managed to reveal the hidden mechanism of suburban growth, provided its constituents with the tools to make clear who was served by it, and who was expected to “suffer” as a consequence. What we might bring into the present moment is the insight that technological advances in digital media do not necessarily bring with them the power to discern, in all its complexity, what is wrong with one’s world, and the expertise to redress it. For this, one needs the kind of human intervention provided by the Surrey Project’s animators, and (just as importantly) the material resources to support them.
1. “Social animation,” translated from the French “animation sociale,” was a community development movement designed by Michel Blondin in Quebec in the 1960s. Drawing from Saul Alinsky-style confrontation tactics, social animators worked with local constituencies to target pressing social and political issues, then trained citizens in pressure techniques to bring about desired changes (Turner, 77). Because the term was so widespread and commonly used during the Challenge for Change program, I will retain it in my discussion here, despite its shift in recent years to denote the animation of still images in film and video production. For a discussion of the survival of the older meaning of the term, see the entry on “animateurs, animation, learning and change” in the encyclopedia of informal education: http://www.infed.org/animate/b-animat.htm [return to text]
2. Marie Kurchak, “What Challenge? What Change?” Canadian Film Reader, Eds Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson, Toronto: Peter Martin Assoc. Ltd, 1977, p. 121. Reprinted from Take One, 4:1 (September-October 1972).
3. Waugh, Thomas, Michael Brendan Baker, and Ezra Winton, eds, Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010. See Lyell Davies’ “Challenge for Change and Participatory Filmmaking” in Jump Cut 53 for a review of this book, and some images of the films that came out of the NFB project.
4. For explorations of these questions, and more, see the excellent essays in Waugh et al, Challenge for Change. For an interesting update on the Fogo project, see Lisa Moore, “Rock Haven”, in Canadianart, 28:3 (Fall 2011), 124-8.
5. Pinney, “The B.C. Land Use Project,” R/G 15, ACC# 86-04, Box 8, File 1, Kwantlen Polytechnic Library Archives, Surrey. This document is undated, but references to contemporary events allow it to be dated to sometime in 1973, as the project was getting started.
6. Donald Gutstein, Vancouver Ltd. Toronto: James Lorimer and Co, 1975, 11.
7. I owe special gratitude to political theorist Serena Kataoka for alerting me to the work of these scholars, and to the importance of the scholarship on urban politics of the seventies to understanding the NFB’s intervention in Surrey. Her dissertation "Civil Cities: Urban Myths for a Suburban Scene" (University of Victoria, 2011) takes Bridgeview as an extended case study in a trenchant analysis of how Jane Jacobs has figured in the politics of Vancouver’s urban development. While we reach many of the same conclusions about the “service” role played by Surrey in relation to Vancouver, she offers a much more extended account of Bridgeview through the decades than I am able to in this essay.
8. Molotch, Harvey, “The City as Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place,” The American Journal of Sociology, 82:2 (September 1976), 309-332.
9. Indeed, as Serena Kataoka has observed, Lorimer’s1972 book A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics (where he develops the notion of “the property industry,”) is considered by many to be an under-recognized precursor to Molotch. (Kataoka, e-mail, 8/23/2011)
10. Lorimer, James, The Developers, Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1978.
11. As quoted in Cameron Owens, “Challenges in Evaluating Livability in Vancouver, Canada,” (Case study prepared for Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements 2009, available from http://www.unhabitat.org/grhs/2009), p.6.
12. Lorimer quotes from Harry N. Lash, Planning in a Human Way: Personal reflections on the regional planning experience in Greater Vancouver. (Toronto: Macmillan, Urban Prospects series, 1976), p. 61. Lorimer was quoting from a manuscript of the book.
13. The animators characterize the Surrey Project as having a “disconnect” from the “federal or provincial politics as it played out in the lower mainland.” They stress rather that is was “grounded in the community” and had more to do with local issues (Conversation with Sellers, Gillis, Driscoll, March 26, 2010). This does not mean, however, that insight cannot be gained by contextualizing the “local” issues within the larger political picture, as I am seeking to do here. Jim Sellers adds:
“we found ourselves involved in advancing, in some way or other/more or less, social justice (in its very broadest connotation). Nor were we ignorant of, nor dismissive of, the larger political context(s) that funded, aided, reacted to, or resisted our efforts. Enabling marginalized communities of interest to empower themselves to find remedy for their situation—be it homeowners wallowing in sewage or children threatened with sexual abuse seemed to me what it was “all about” for us and those we chose to work with.” (Sellers, e-mail, 10/21/2011).
14. Jim Sellers, Conversation with Sellers, Gillis, and Driscoll, March 26, 2010.
15. The animators were themselves trained in the new video technology by NFB practitioners Moira (Mo) Simpson and Liz Walker. Simpson recollects that she and Walker
“would drive out to Surrey [from Vancouver] and give portapack workshops at a time when we were still learning the technology ourselves. We visited Bridgeview and became familiar with the neighbourhood but we were definitely on the outside.”
“Yet our connection to the project and working with Metro Media (which was linked to Challenge for Change) informed my entire life. I'm still helping people develop the skills to tell their own stories—whether it's in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside using mobile phones, in the slums of Kenya or with the youth of New Denver, who are currently working on a community media project remembering the Internment of the Japanese during the war in the New Denver Nikkei Internment Camp.” (Facebook Correspondence, 1 April 2010)
16. Letter from Ernest Hall, B.C. Provincial Secretary, to Christopher Pinney, June 27th, 1974, Douglas College Library Archives, New Westminster.
17. Dave Driscoll points out that, aside from the technical expertise, citizens who were trained in video editing were receiving an education in critical thinking—something that helped the CFC Surrey Project justify its partnership with the Community College:
“One of the things really critical in terms of adult education was […] how do people learn to structure their thinking? And the use of video was a key element in obliging a discipline of thought. So we would meet with some groups and they would say, ok who wants to yell, ‘all right you bunch of assholes up there?’ Okay, you can yell that now and you can film it for a couple minutes. Okay now you’ve got three minutes, are we going to put that in the video? No, it doesn’t really make our case. So what makes our case? [We were teaching] a discipline of efficiency, economy of argument. [We’d say] ‘don’t raise that argument because it opens the door for a rejoinder’ […] so it was teaching the structure of thought, the structure of representation, visual literacy, what has power, economy of argument, it teaches all those professional disciplines that are well known in law and a number of other professions. […] I think that that was the key part of education that the college understood and respected.” (Driscoll, 6/23/10)
18. Norma Taite, Conversation with Taite and Gillis, June 21, 2011.
19. A June 1980 memo from Gillis, outlining the activities of the CCC after the NFB pulled out, notes that the center “helped to organize a number of communities to speak against industry in their community. These problems were resolved in Surrey and gave birth to community planning committees. However, the G.V.R.D., in their Livable Region Plan, had placed the Industrial Zones back into the plan, and the fight is on again in earnest.” (Memo, Gillis to Doerr, June 5, 1980, Management Committee File, CCC, Kwantlen Polytechnic University Archives, Surrey).
20. Dave Driscoll, Conversation with Jim Sellers, Jim Gillis, and Dave Driscoll, March 26, 2010.
21. It is worth noting that under the auspices of the Challenge for Change program, the NFB made a multi-part documentary about Saul Alinsky’s organizing tactics, both in the States and in Canada. These films were distributed as training tools for social animators and community organizers as the program continued to unfold in the seventies. See the series: The Alinsky Approach: Organizing for Power, dirs. Peter Pearson and Bonnie Sherr Klein, 1967. http://www.nfb.ca/film/encounter_with_saul_alinsky_part_1
22. One point of controversy over the CFC program was precisely this question of the ethical and/or rhetorical effect of training the camera on the “disadvantaged” and casting them in the role of victim.
23. Not In My Backyard.
24. In a letter to the Douglas College Dean of Curriculum, Pinney writes:
“While the centre would be administratively supported on a similar basis to the College institutes it must remain clearly separate from them. Institutes are perceived by the public as primarily academic activities, concerned with observing and gathering information on specific fields. The outreach centre, on the other hand, must be perceived as a catalytic action-oriented facility that is interested in helping people define their own priorities and interests.” (Pinney to Day, 18 April 1975, p.2, Douglas College Archives, New Westminster)
25. The daily operations of the Community Communications Center, and the projects accomplished there through the late seventies and early eighties, is documented by a rich archive that includes a daily log, correspondence, reports, scenarios for videos, transcripts of interviews, and dozens of half- and three quarter-inch process videos. These may be found at Kwantlen Polytechnic University Archives, Surrey Campus (formerly Douglas College).
26. That Pinney has now shifted his “social animation” skills to the corporate citizen is evidenced by a recent blog entry:
“We are in an age where half of the world’s top economies and most influential institutions are now businesses. The power and speed of business far exceeds the capacity of governments to keep pace on the regulatory front as the current global financial crisis clearly illustrates. When it comes to solving social challenges, again the capacity of governments to respond is increasingly limited. Governments struggling under mounting deficits are barely able to keep entitlement commitments they have to their constituents, never mind innovating to meet the complex social and environmental challenges of a global economy.
Indeed, if government intervention alone was sufficient to solve these problems then […] we could assume they would have ‘been solved long ago by governments doing the job they were elected for.’ In reality […] we know the only way to find ‘real solutions’ to complex social problems of the 21st century is through new forms of collaboration between business, government and civil society.” (Pinney, “Critique Shines Light on Challenges of CSR Practice, August 31, 2010, http://blogs.bcccc.net/2010/08/critique-shines-light-on-challenges-of-csr-practice/, accessed 8/15/2011)
27. For an acerbic take on the circulation of the term “Vancouverism,” see Ingram, Gordon Brent, “Squatting in ‘Vancouverism’: Public Art and Architecture after the Winter Olympics,” 21 March 2010 entry in his blog Designs for the Terminal City (www.gordonbrentingram.ca/theterminalcity, accessed 15 August 2011).
28. Cameron Owens, “Challenges in Evaluating Livability in Vancouver, Canada,” Case study prepared for Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements, 2009, p. 3. (http://www.unhabitat.org/grhs/2009, accessed 8/15/2011)
29. Since the seventies, Bridgeview has continued to attract benevolent neighborhood improvement schemes, including a recent initiative sponsored by the United Way: Action for Neighborhood Change, whose efforts were documented in a promotional video made in 2006.
I would like to thank Dean Winnie Brownell, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Humanities, and the Harrington School of Communications at the University of Rhode Island: their generous grants made possible several research trips to British Columbia and Montreal. I owe deep gratitude to Jan Clemson, Dave Driscoll, Jim Gillis, Jim Sellers, and Norma Taite for graciously sharing with me their recollections of the Surrey Project. Without their help, this essay would literally have been unthinkable. Jim Sellers and Serena Kataoka generously gave close readings to an early draft, helping me to clarify my argument, and to correct errors. I thank Director Christopher Pinney for the initial conversation that led me to a treasure trove of materials on the project. Archivist Denise Dale made my visit to Kwantlen Polytechnic Library Archives one of the most pleasant and productive research trips I have ever made. My thanks also to Jacquie Ticknor at the Douglas College Library Archives in New Westminster, and Valerie Heidecke for timely research assistance. Thanks also to Thomas Waugh and Zoë Druick, for allowing me to share this research in its earlier incarnations, and to Peter Dickinson for facilitating my initial meeting with the Surrey Project social animators. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Karen Carr-Potter, Russell Potter, and Mary Cappello, for their encouragement and interest in this project from its inception.
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