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Governance Lessons from a Canadian Village

It was about 1970 when my community of Tilley, Alberta, Canada almost divided itself.

The community was just starting to move out of its long-held, working-poor economic status. The farms were providing a better income for the farmers. Alberta’s burgeoning oilpatch was providing well-paying jobs. The road to Brooks (the town 20 kilometers away) was improved for more economic opportunity. The village and country residents were becoming a little more wealthy. It was time to upgrade our social infrastructure.

Tilley had a community hall, which was built in the 1930s. It had hosted many gatherings over the years. But there was no indoor plumbing. There were outhouses out the back door. Most of the men just did their business in the weeds next to the building. In the winter months, the women used the indoor plumbing in the next-door Tilley Curling Rink, which was built in the 1950s. It was time to put some plumbing in the hall. The community was united in this matter. Fundraisers were held, and government grants were sought.

Then someone had a great idea. Why not join the community hall and the curling rink? Put common washrooms and a big kitchen between the two buildings. Then have the two buildings share that common facility. And the Curling Rink would get its primitive 1950s plumbing upgraded. The community was united in this matter.

Before we get to the next part of this drama, let me tell you something about Tilley in 1970. It was not exactly a heterogenous community. There were the wage-earning village people living in the village, and independent farmers who lived by the whims of agriculture. There were families of the Slovak Catholic settlers and families of the Danish Lutheran settlers, and these two groups still had some suspicions about each other. There were a few other ethnic groups and other religions in smaller numbers. The people of English descent seemed to be a little wealthier in Tilley.

Perhaps the biggest divide was the consumption of alcohol. There were people in Tilley who liked the good times alcohol brought. And there were people who shunned this vice—and could have a good time without it. Generally, these two groups did not socialize much with each other. Yet they were still friendly.

All of those subcultures used the Tilley Community Hall in some way or another, several times a year. Everyone had a stake in this facility. Everyone wanted to improve it. Everyone understood that unity of this heterogeneous community was necessary in this public endeavor.

When sufficient funds had been secured, it was time to figure out how to add the shared amenities to the two buildings. The thinkers of Tilley (i.e. some of the men) had come up with two plans: Plan A and Plan B. Several meetings were held, with advocates of Plan A extolling its pros and then denigrating the cons of Plan B. And advocates of Plan B were extolling its advantages and pointing out the flaws of Plan A. The dialogue was becoming too intense. It also spilled outside of those meetings.

My father was an ardent supporter of Plan B. He was rather evangelical about his preference. He had put together several drawings of Plan B to show other Tilley people how well it would work. He was an important figure in the Plan B movement. But discussions were moving into personal attacks.

I was only 10 years old at the time and not wise about the world of adults. But my father’s handling of this matter somehow etched its way into my memories. As I got a little wiser, I could put the pieces together to tell this story years later.

The alcohol usage and non-usage of Tilley was the focal point of contention. Because the washrooms and kitchen were shared between the hall and curling rink, the people using the hall had to interact with the people using the curling rink. There could be an alcohol function on one side and a teetotal function on the other. Next weekend, the alcohol usage could change places. As well, the kitchen was set up for five to ten women to put together big meals for the hall side. But the curling rink just needed to cook hamburgers and hot dogs. How do the two sides share the same kitchen if two events are happening at the same time?

Neither Plan A nor Plan B conclusively solved these problems. The community held a meeting to move forward with a vote. Plan A had more votes. My father was disappointed that he did not get his way. He did not provide any more volunteer time and labor to this project.

A year after the joining of the two buildings, the community somehow figured out how the hall and curling rink could work together. And the alcohol users and non-users somehow figured out a good unofficial compromise between them. All the cons of Plan A seem to have fixed themselves. And the animosity between Plan A and Plan B was—fortunately—forgotten.

This joined facility served the Tilley community for another 25 years. Looking back, I can see how my father and other vocal supporters of both Plan A and Plan B were using “The End of Tilley” as their main debating point. They were willing to risk friendships and respectful acquaintances. They were willing to risk the derailment of the entire project and a divided community. 

Was “being right” so worth it?

The Tilley Hall & the TDG

The Tilley Hall story is a lesson for the early TDG builders. Communities can divide themselves over issues that are really not that important. We have to learn to rise above ourselves when making community decisions.

Each early TDG will need to resolve 25 to 50 issues while writing their first TDG constitution. Who is a member? What are the boundaries? What does the ballot look like? When are the elections? How many members are on the executive committee? What’s a proper notice in TDG affairs? How does the TDG amend its constitution? Strong opinions can arise on many of these issues. If the builders take the same approach as Tilley’s Plan A and Plan B combatants on a few or more of these issues, that TDG community probably won’t survive much longer.

I have the following recommendations for early TDG builders to write their local TDG constitution. First, express your viewpoints on all the constitution-building issues you feel are important. Ensure your viewpoints are heard, for you deserve some feedback that you were heard by the other members. Second, listen to opinions that are different than yours. Acknowledge those opinions, even if you are not in agreement. Look for the good in those opinions. Be open to changing your mind. Third, yield to the consensus that seems to be forming—even if it is not going in the direction you want. When the decision is made, try to support it as best you can. At least step out of the way of its advocates and their vision. Anticipate that things could just work out well with the decision you don’t like. Let things play out to their natural outcome.

If your TDG has a defect in its constitution, it will be apparent a year or two later. Your TDG community will have learned some important lessons. Maybe your original idea will be tried out. Or maybe there is another idea worthy of an experiment. Your TDG will make the appropriate amendment to its constitution. Have confidence that the TDG will rise above its defects.

In fact, such amendments are just good practice for TDG governance. You need to build and enhance your local constitution to understand how TDG governance works.

Nothing in the TDG constitution is “life or death” for your TDG. Nothing in the TDG constitution is important enough to justify a divided TDG community.

Express your viewpoints.

Listen to other viewpoints.

Yield to the consensus.

There’s a lot of community power in those 11 words. Building the TDG will help you see that power. Deliberately think in this way when building your constitution.

My father didn’t like Plan A for the Tilley Hall. And he eventually realized that Plan A was better than the status quo. Plan A was not the end of Tilley. Plan A lasted 25 years.

Your TDG work will last a lot longer—and move way beyond your locality. Even when you don’t agree!

Published on Medium 2022

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