Michael Clague works in the fields of adult education, social policy and planning, and community development. He has done so for the three levels of government, for the voluntary sector, and as an independent consultant. He also has written and taught in these fields at Langara College, Simon Fraser University, and the University of British Columbia. He is a past-president of the Canadian Council on Social Development. Currently he is a director of the Carold Institute for the Advancement of Citizenship for Social Change, and is an Associate of the Institute for Humanities at Simon Fraser University.
Michael was the first Executive Director of the Britannia Community Services Centre (Vancouver) and subsequently served as Executive Director of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria, and of the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia. He recently retired as the Director of the Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Throughout his career Michael has tried to express his work through praxis, the balancing of reflection and engagement. The excitement of being “hands on” is twinned with the need to step back for intellectual and emotional replenishment, integrating the learning and knowledge from doing with the learning and knowledge that can come from reading, enquiry, and good conversations with other people.
Social justice and the challenges and possibilities for social progress are two life-long concerns. He has an avid interest in the arts in the quest for understanding meaning and purpose in the human journey, to celebrate life, and to cope with the terrible things we can do to one another. In the final years of the twentieth century he founded, with the support, among others, of Jerry Zaslove and the Institute for the Humanities The Legacies Project – A Retrospective Journey into Twentieth Century Politics as Portrayed Through the Arts.
Michael’s engagement in social change began as a university student. With a fellow UBC student he gained the support of then President Norman MacKenzie to set up the President’s Committee on Student Overseas Service, placing students in Africa at the beginning of the ’60s. This initiative would eventually contribute to the founding of CUSO (then known as “Canadian University Service Overseas”). At the same time, as a student staff member of the Alma Branch YMCA Michael founded a community work project between the Chief and Council of the Musqueam Reserve and the YMCA. This involved leadership training with Musqueam youth and a tutorial program with UBC student volunteers.
This pattern of local and global activist interests has continued through much of his career. Following graduation Michael moved to Toronto as the first national Youth and Education Secretary for the United Nations Association in Canada. In this role he worked with educators in the production of world affairs education materials and with high school and university students in public affairs programs and model United Nations Assemblies. He established the first week long United Nations World Affairs program for students from across Canada at the United Nations in New York. During this same period there was an outburst of anti-Semitic hate literature in Toronto, and with others, he established “Toronto Youth for Human Rights” which brought youth and young adults from the full range of ’60s activist persuasions to challenge what was taking place and argue for education and public policy measures that made it clear that there was no place for racism of any kind in Canadian society.
From Toronto Michael did a stint of “national service” with the federal government, a highlight of which was to serve as a staff member of Senator David Croll’s Special Senate Committee on Poverty (1968-1970). This work took him across the country, helping to organize the public hearings of the committee and contributing to the committee’s report. In this era, the challenge was to complete the building blocks of the Canadian welfare state which had been progressively evolving since the end of the War. The focus was on ensuring a decent core standard of living for all, and equally important, to ensure that people had choices in how they lived their lives and contributed to society. The policy recommendation was for a guaranteed annual income, about which there was much debate among all political outlooks. As the ’70s moved on it became a largely academic discussion however as – with the exception of a measure like the child tax credit – the social safety net was drastically weakened and unhappily we have been fighting rear-guard actions ever since.
The remainder of Michael’s career has been spent here on the West Coast, where he was born. With the exception of several years of involvement in an exchange program for community workers between Indonesia and Canada (the Indonesia-Canada Forum) most of his work has been in spent social justice and community development activities within British Columbia. Indeed his appointment as Director of the Carnegie Centre was a fitting “book-end” to work that began 30 years ago at Britannia Centre in Grandview-Woodland.
It was truly a privilege for Michael to have served the Carnegie Centre and the residents of the Downtown Eastside. We know the high-profile, negative image of this community which is so materially poor, and so saddled with health, social and employment issues. His first discovery was that in this environment Carnegie is a place of refuge and renewal. It is one of the few agencies in the Downtown Eastside where residents are not in a dependent relationship with systems of survival and control. People come into Carnegie who they are, as they are and because they want to. And through Carnegie they can choose to pursue who they wish to become. The Centre models respect and acceptance for everyone, and enables people to apply these qualities to themselves. The Centre is also the community’s “town hall,” where people come together to learn, to debate and discuss, and plan actions on issues affecting the community.
About his Carnegie years Michael says:
Carnegie “Challenged every facet of my being, my personal and professional self. It brooks no facades in the director, but fortunately it was generous in my weaknesses. It came at the right time in my career. Here in one place were manifest the cultures of the globe and the consequences of our domestic public policies that contribute to dependency and marginalization. My instinctive response in my first months was simply to listen, to build trust and relationships, and then to move along those avenues where we could do some things together.
This enabled me to appreciate Carnegie as the community’s “own” where people were free of dependent relationships. It meant we could start on the positive side to enable people to express their strengths. This led to my second discovery; that the community arts are a powerful means for personal and community development – enabling people to give voice to the world as they experience it, and to the world as they would like it to be. Through Carnegie I learned about the natural artistic talents in the community and the rich store of experience and expression that people articulate. Carnegie itself had long been a centre for community arts activity, and for partnerships between the community arts, and the professional arts. It was evident that through the community arts we could contribute to community renewal.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a remarkable place. It is one of the country’s poorest postal codes. But all is not what you see. It has demonstrated conviction and courage against daunting odds that would cow many other neighbourhoods. With little initial outside interest or support residents successfully got building codes enforced in seedy hotels and rooming houses; they closed a local liquor store; they prevented the bifurcation of the community for a freeway; they saved the Carnegie library – threatened with sale by the City – and had it turned into a community centre, they obtained badly needed social housing, they “took over” wasteland owned by the City and turned it into the remarkable Strathcona Community Gardens; they campaigned – after much internal debate – for a harm reduction approach to addictions, and now host a number of unique services for drug users that are the subject of international interest. Most significantly, this campaign was led by drug users, the Vancouver and Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). And currently, locally led efforts like United We Can, the binners’ organization demonstrate what self-help is all about.
The struggles are far from over. The Downtown Eastside has and continues to be exploited by the illegal drug market and by governments. The former takes advantage of people’s vulnerabilities. Too often the latter – primarily the senior governments – in recent years have abdicated their responsibilities to the poor, to people with mental illness, to those in conflict with the law, and to those with addictions. The D.E. has been a convenient place to forget about people.
Now the community faces gentrification as the last undeveloped real estate market in the city. Ironically, if the harm reduction strategies reduce the street drug scene, they also will increase the pressures for gentrification, with the consequent disbursement of low income people. For Vancouver this is also an opportunity. The city has gained a justly deserved international reputation for its success in bringing residential life back to its downtown (as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century). Now, can we also find a way to renew the Downtown Eastside as a healthy low income neighbourhood? This would indeed be a remarkable accomplishment in the history of North American inner cities. It would be to the benefit and credit of Vancouver as a whole.
The time is propitious. The leadership for renewal must come from the Downtown Eastside. The will is there. But there is also at present a City government and a City administration that is actively seeking solutions for community regeneration and not displacement. In this all residents of Vancouver can play a part by becoming informed about the Downtown Eastside and realizing that issues of addictions, homelessness, mental health and poverty cannot be relegated to this community; they are increasingly everywhere. And the answers are to be found in working respectfully and in coalition with those who are poor to change the public policies that create dependency. We all will be the beneficiaries.
Were Mahatma Gandhi to visit the Downtown Eastside one suspects he would find much with which he could identify; a community that has been badly abused; a community where some people do – in their own marginalization – blame themselves – or where some themselves become petty oppressors, and of course where some are the authors of their own difficulties. He would find within this turmoil also resilience – people without much means but whose lives are healthy and “together;” other people who can briefly surface from their struggles to make their own valued contributions to qualities of caring and compassion, qualities that are present every day in this community. And Gandhi would, surely, admire the skills the community has demonstrated and the successes it has achieved through civic activism, and on occasion, civil disobedience.
For Michael, receiving the Thakore Visiting Scholar Award for 2005 is a great personal honor. It is also in so many ways a much deserved recognition of the Downtown Eastside and of the accomplishments of its residents, and of the work of the Carnegie Community Centre.
Michael obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia in 1963 (Political Science and International Studies) and a Masters of Education at the University of Toronto in 1968 (Adult Education – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). His publications include Citizen Participation in the Legislative Process, Citizen Participation: Canada, J. Draper, ed. Toronto: New Press, 1972; Adult Basic Education in Canada: Are the Poor Included? Adult Basic Education, W. Michael Brooke, ed. Toronto: New Press, 1972; Reforming Human Services: The Experience of the Community Resources Boards in British Columbia (with Robert Dill, Roopchand Seebaran, and Brian Wharf). Vancouver: UBC Press, 1984; Community Organizing: Canadian Experiences (with Brian Wharf). Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Michael retired from the Carnegie Centre and the City of Vancouver in April 2005. He continues as a volunteer and as a consultant in community development.