Long before the COVD-19 pandemic, thousands of rural Ontario stories were waiting to be told – stories about challenges and opportunities, adventures and misadventures, experiences, concerns and aspirations that are unique to those who live there.
And now there’s a new chance for those stories to be told.
On Wednesday, the People’s Archive of Rural Ontario (PARO) was launched (www.ruralontario.org). This free, online initiative, based out of the University of Guelph with support from Rural Ontario Institute, is a story collecting and story-telling space, available to everyone.
Some stories will be about the pandemic, for sure. But as much as it affected rural Ontario, it didn’t define it. PARO believes that by telling stories, bridges of understanding will be built between urban and rural Ontario.
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PARO needed a very active committee to put it together, but it really began with a connection between Guelph Prof. Sharada Srinivasan, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development, and India journalist P. Sainith, who founded the ground-breaking People’s Archives of Rural India (PARI).
Sainith, a guest speaker at the PARO unveiling Wednesday, is sensitive to information and knowledge being controlled and hoarded by repressive governments. That’s been a huge problem historically in India and some other countries, where the upper class and decision makers held a monopoly on libraries and higher education. Public access was restricted and history was written from limited perspectives.
That all sounds like a nightmare from some other era. But Sainith maintains that the India government has not changed its privileged ways. He points to the deplorable way it’s treated farmers there over the past couple years, ramming through legislation that imposed huge changes on them then ignoring their concerns.
Sainith advocates that repositories of knowledge be open and representative, which is where the idea of a people’s archive came to him. He and his team gather stories, curate them and post them on the PARI site, where they will live in perpetuity.
The same open approach will propel PARO forward. Rural Ontario is not repressed in the same way as rural India. But it’s mostly a mystery to urbanities, which leaves it open to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
That’s where PARO comes in. As Sainith says, collaborating with rural people, getting their consent and crediting them for their efforts builds trust, especially when the entire effort is connected to a non-partisan entity like a university, and people contribute stories themselves or with help from PARO itself.
Inevitably, questions will arise such as what is “rural,” and what constitutes a rural story.
Officially, Statistics Canada defines a rural area as one with a population of under 1,000 people. But, as PARO says, there are other considerations as well, such as proximity to a town or city, and the types of activities that happen in that space.
Indeed, “rural” includes agricultural activities and farmland. But more. A holistic definition considers population density, geography, infrastructure, human activities, economics and more.
Check it out… and be part, or read part, of Ontario history.