In response to COVID-19, communities have jumped into action. Restaurants cooked for food shelters. Breweries across Canada produced hand sanitizer. Clothing companies created cloth masks.
As the country moves to pandemic recovery, the role of local innovators has never been clearer.
The Rideau Hall Foundation recently released Canada’s Culture of Innovation Report, which found that 64 percent of Canadians believe it’s important for the people in their own communities to engage in local, problem-solving efforts. And before the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, Canada was already seeing a heightened need for local innovation.
The good news is that local innovators across the country are taking action.
What Makes a Social Innovator?
In Canada, Nunavut has the highest levels of child poverty. Within just two generations, through government involvement, Nunavut went through massive social change. As a result, the lives of youth look very different to that of their grandparents.
Pirurvik Preschool, co-founded by Tessa Lochhead and Karen Nutarak, is a preschool based in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. The preschool provides child-centered education that is decolonized and culturally relevant, creating a more meaningful, engaging and effective learning space for the children. Pirurvik does this by integrating the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) principle of Pillimaksarniq.
Lochhead explains that the IQ principle “allows children to learn at their own pace. Children follow their own natural curiosity by choosing topics that interest them, and the learning materials are hands-on resources that allow for self-directed development.”
Lochhead and Nutarak have made Pirurvik Preschool free of charge for parents. In its first two years, Pirurvik developed a partnership with the Nunavut Arctic College, bringing in a two-year diploma program for the 2015-2017 academic period as a practicum location. The college students became Pirurvik’s part-time employees.
In 2017, Pirurvik received support from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), who funded the preschool for two years. In 2018, Pirurvik Preschool won $1 million from the Arctic Inspiration Prize, which will pay for Pirurvik’s employees until 2022.
Pirurvik’s mission is to create a culturally-relevant learning space. “In its essence, the Pirurvik Preschool method is a form of decolonizing education,” says Lochhead. “It puts the power of education back into the hands of the learner — into the hands of each child.”
47.8 percent of people in Nunavut have a high school diploma, compared to the 86.3 percent in the rest of Canada. Lochhead says Pirurvik is the first preschool developed in Pond Inlet that has remained open for a long period of time, and shows great results in their young graduates, precisely because of its culturally-relevant teaching methods. She explains that in the context of Nunavut, education “demands that children have a strong foundation in their cultural identity and language, in order to increase their sense of confidence and identity.”
Lochhead emphasizes how important it is to decolonize education, so those community members can regain autonomy over the education. “This kind of approach could contribute to the dialogue of methods that work when it comes to decolonizing education across Canada.”
According to the Canada’s Culture of Innovation Report, Northern Canadians have a more favourable perception of Canada’s culture of innovation — and as much is shown by Pirurvik Preschool.
In British Columbia, digital platform Kudoz has been addressing a different challenge: finding ways for people with developmental disabilities to live with more connections in their life. Kudoz’s solution is to connect people with and without disabilities for activities, or ‘experiences’.
Interested community members can ‘host’ an event, from cooking to learning a new language. From there, youth and adults with cognitive disabilities search the Kudoz online platform and book experiences to try.
There are more than three million Canadians with disabilities, and two thirds of this population lack ‘one or more of the educational, workplace, home modification or other supports they need’. This leads to increased feelings of social isolation, which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19.
During COVID-19, Kudoz has moved all of its programming online. “That also means skilling up people to be able to use the technology,” says Janey Roh, Culture Lead.
Alongside its partners, Kudoz has prototyped over 30 different service offerings for those living with disabilities, with the aim of integrating services into an individual’s life, as opposed to a one-off service on the sidelines.
COVID-19 has forced mainstream service deliveries to change, and with it, created a space to scale Kudoz’ prototypes, as well as existing programs, quickly. One such offering Real Talk, speaking with people around love, sexuality and relationships. Another is a ‘Neighborhood Organizer’: Kudoz staff map where individuals and families with disabilities live, and reach out for neighbourhood check-ins and to broker food stamps.
Sarah Schulman is the Chief Strategist of Kudoz and Lead Partner of InWithForward, the social design organization leading Kudoz. InWithForward’s relationship to Canadian cultural innovation can be shown quite literally: the organization first launched in The Netherlands. After working with governments in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K., they found that social services leaders just weren’t ready for disruption. It was in Canada that the team met social services leaders unafraid to challenge the status quo.
Schulman explains that there’s a typical hierarchy and risk-aversion in most social service sectors — including Canada’s. “The way in which we set up our social service systems is a power dynamic between managers and frontline staff, and then between frontline staff and people on the ground. That power dynamic is antithetical to being able to do good, inclusive work.” For Schulman, the COVID-19 pandemic means that “Now, more than ever, systems that have gaping power disparities are on display.”
A part of this display has been fuelled by a “resurgence of civil society, and a recognition that institutions can’t do it all,” Schulman says.
For Jennifer DeCoste, founder of Life.School.House, the kinds of community connections offered by civil society are vital to building neighbourhood resilience. As a ‘folk school’ — a place for adult education focused on self development, with no final exams — Life.School.House creates informal learning spaces for neighbours to gather and share traditional skills, from cooking to playing an instrument.
DeCoste started the organization with her husband, Scott. “We experienced a pervasive loneliness which we originally attributed to an increasingly urban lifestyle, so we gathered a small group of neighbours together to talk through the problem, and to design a solution that could be piloted easily with few resources,” says DeCoste. From that conversation came the idea of hosting in-person gatherings for knowledge-sharing at the DeCoste’s house. It was also agreed that a bartering system would be the best way for people to access workshops, removing any financial barriers.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in five Canadians felt lonely. Even though Life.School.House’s gatherings fill to capacity quickly, DeCoste says that for many, just knowing these kinds of events are happening creates hope, giving people permission to start their own community projects. “Our actions inspire and contribute ripples in the pond, where many small actions together are creating stronger more connected communities.”
For DeCoste, Life.School.House’s contribution to Canada’s innovation lies in its difference to traditional folk schools, which are popular in the U.S. “Rather than duplicating an American model, we are bringing innovation to the resurgence of folk schools in Canada,” she says. “Our accessible model is shared freely, and we offer a network of support for schools starting up across the country.”
DeCoste has been invited to speak about Life.School.House internationally, including at the global gathering of folk school practitioners in Denmark. With representatives from 30 countries, “ours was the only model invited from Canada and the only known barter-based model in the world,” she says.
The Role of Local Innovators in Canada’s Recovery
Pirurvik Preschool, Kudoz and Life.School.House are all uniquely poised to use their community innovations to not only lead COVID-19 recovery, but to build back better.
Today, Pirurvik Preschool is contributing to early childhood education in seven other Nunavut communities. As travel restrictions open, Pirurvik will continue its work “developing training sessions, and partnering with community daycares, so we may support children and families throughout this difficult moment in time,” says Lochhead.
Schulman says that, because of COVID-19, “mainstream service delivery can’t look the way it did. The opportunity is to ensure that services don’t go back to their normal models — that a platform like Kudoz, which gives you access to both digital experiences in-person experiences, becomes the normal way of operating.”
Life.School.House’s model has been expanding across Nova Scotia. “It has enough space to evolve each time it is borrowed and shared from one community to the next,” says DeCoste. “While our current model is a platform for folkschooling, our larger work is to create communities where people feel less isolated and more connected through the act of shared learning experiences.” And coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, that type of work will be more important than ever.