1 Thriving in Rural and Northern Practice: A Place-Based Approach

Joanna Pierce and Tavia McKinnon

Social work education in Canada focuses largely on theories, skills, and ethical frameworks that are congruent with urban settings. As a result, social work in rural, remote, and northern regions is often defined in relation to urban (and southern) expectations of practice. This approach tends to emphasize the deficits of rural, remote, and northern practice, while paying less attention to the reasons why social workers choose to live and work in northern remote places over the long term. The first section of this chapter centres on a discussion about the characteristics of rural, remote, northern, and urban places. The second section provides a brief overview of the literature on rural, remote, and northern social work, and unpacks deficit-based narratives about practicing in these contexts. Finally, building on Zapf’s (2009) proposal of “people as place” and drawing on the authors’ extensive experiences in northern and remote places, the third section presents a place-based approach to practice that encourages social workers to ground themselves in the local community and reflect upon their own connections to place.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter you will have had the opportunity to:

  • Understand the terms rural, remote, urban, northern social work
  • Understand/identify differences between urban, rural, remote, and northern social work practice
  • Develop awareness of personal connections to place
  • Consider place-based implications for practice

Defining Rural, Remote, and Northern Places

Just as “social work” is used to refer to a broad spectrum of roles and responsibilities, the terms “rural,” “remote,” and “northern” encompass significant diversity, both in terms of geographic location and in the cultures, values, and livelihoods of the people who call these places home. Awareness of this diversity is an important first step to place-based practice. For now, it may be helpful to look more closely at what is meant by rural, remote, and northern in the context of social work in Canada.

Urban, rural, remote, and northern hold multiple meanings that vary widely internationally, based on geography, climate, and population size and distribution. For example, while “north” in the Canadian context often carries a connotation of freezing temperatures and a harsh climate, the same does not hold true for Australia, where harsh climates are associated with extreme heat. Similarly, while in Canada many remote communities are located hundreds of kilometres from their closest neighbour, the meaning of “remote” may be understood differently in countries with a different population density and geographical size.

Even within Canada, classification of urban, rural, and remote remains an ongoing subject of debate (Subedi et al., 2020). Generally, urban places are defined by a combination of high population size, high population density, and/or proximity to major population centres, while rural places have comparatively low population size, low population density, and are located at a greater distance from urban centres (Statistics Canada, 2017a). Remote communities, in addition to having low population size and density, are characterized by their distance from other small communities and by more restricted access (Pierce, 2017). Air access, reliance on seasonal and weather-dependent travel routes–such as ice roads, gravel roads, and ferry crossings—or  travel through isolated regions may be required to access the nearest major centre.

While the above delineations can be helpful in clarifying the use of the words “urban,” “rural,” and “remote” in this chapter, we also recognize that these terms represent living, dynamic communities made up of diverse people in unique contexts. In other words, no two communities are exactly alike, even if they share some characteristics such as a northerly location or a similar distance from the nearest city. Pugh and Cheers (2010) observe that while differences between urban and rural areas do exist, attempts to establish dichotomies between urban and non-urban areas often unhelpfully assume the presence of “some enduring essential or intrinsic feature of ‘rurality’ that can be found in all rural communities” (p. x). Like Pugh and Cheers, we choose to focus on the diversity of rural experiences, on grounding rural practice in its local context, and ultimately on the development of place-based solutions best suited to the needs and assets of local communities. Given the significant role of geography in shaping the experience of people in rural and remote places, it is also worth attending to the concept of “north,” which has been the subject of considerable debate in Canadian literature on rural and remote social work.

How North is North?

In 2016, 66% of Canada’s population lived within 100km of the country’s southern border with the United States, an area that makes up just 4% of the country’s land mass (Statistics Canada, 2017b). With the remaining third of our population spread out across a vastly larger geographical area, the terms “northern” and “remote” are sometimes – and understandably – conflated. However, one does not necessarily imply the other, in part because of Canada’s geography and in part because “north” is a relative concept. For example, the city of Prince George, British Columbia, is located approximately 700km north of Vancouver and is the most northerly urban centre in all Canadian provinces; yet Prince George would almost certainly be considered “southern” by residents of more northerly communities in B.C. and the Yukon. Furthermore, despite Prince George’s stated northerly location as compared to Vancouver, it is neither rural nor remote; rather, it is an urban centre that provides services to residents of many smaller communities throughout northern B.C.

Given the inherently subjective nature of “north” as a cardinal direction, another approach is to set geographical boundaries. One such approach is to consider anything north of the limit of isolated permafrost as “Canada’s north”—an area which includes Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories (sometimes called the “far north”), in addition to the northern regions of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador (Government of Canada, n.d.).

Schmidt (2017), meanwhile, notes differences in the historical perceptions of north among Indigenous and Settler peoples, where “early European settlers (French and English) saw the north as something that was savage, hostile, and even fearful whereas the Indigenous people regarded the north as home and a place of safety” (p. 9). These differences hold important implications for the continued unfolding of north-south and Indigenous-Settler relations, particularly considering that urban and southern residents today often hold much of the power when it comes to defining and characterizing the “north” (Schmidt, 2009). Building on Kassam (2001), Schmidt also highlights the significance of the way we describe the north: if the north is seen as a place of belonging, or a homeland, then the sustainability of its people, communities, and resources are more likely to be upheld; however, if the north is “othered” and characterized as a frontier, it becomes easier to justify exploitative practices such as unsustainable resource extraction (Schmidt, 2009).

Despite geographical and political understandings of north, there are places where people identify as “northerners,” and often this sense of identity is tied to specific local characteristics related to geography, climate, and culture. Pfeifer (2018), an Inuk scholar writing about Arctic research governance, states that “[w]e don’t need Northerners to become better researchers, we need researchers to become better Northerners” (p. 34). If the same is true within social work, perhaps the first step is to learn from northerners what this means to them.

Examples
  • You are about to start practicing social work in ___________, a remote community only accessible by [state how it is accessed]. What might you need to take into consideration, both personally and professionally, in terms of travel?
  • You are a social worker in the rural community of ___________. The community is connected to the nearest city by an all-weather gravel road, and residents must go to the city for basic needs such as grocery shopping and medical appointments; however, many of your clients do not have access to a vehicle. How might this impact your practice?
Northern, Remote, and Rural Social Work in the Literature

The concept of rural social work practice dates back to the early 1900s. In the United States, social worker Josephine Brown was advocating for rural-specific practice as early as the 1920s and published a seminal book on rural social work in 1933 (Martinez-Brawley, 1987). Remarkably, many of Brown’s observations and recommendations for rural practice are still relevant today. Her emphasis on a generalist approach to practice, developing strong relationships, making use of local resources, and developing awareness of local context have been echoed by contemporary rural social work scholars. However, Brown was criticized for much of her work at the time (Martinez-Brawley, 1987) and, despite her efforts, the notion of rural-specific social work in the United States was mostly superseded in the 1940s by urban priorities of social work specialization (Schmidt, 2009). Despite a resurgence of interest in rural social work in the United States in the 1970s, studies began emerging in the United States and Australia in the late 1980s and 1990s that questioned the existence of any empirical differences between social work practice in rural and urban areas (Pugh & Cheers, 2010; Schmidt, 2009). However, Pugh and Cheers (2010) contend that these studies focused on patterns and practices largely pre-determined by broader structures of social service provision, as well as on practitioner perspectives likely shaped by the common denominator of social work education in urban centres. As a result, the studies may have neglected to consider factors relevant to small communities in rural areas, such as ethical considerations related to confidentiality, balancing work and personal relationships, and relationships with the larger community (Pugh & Cheers, 2010).

In the 1980s, while international scholarship focused on rural social work was unfolding, Canadian and international scholars began to explore the notion of remote and northern social work as separate areas of practice (Pierce, 2017). With growing interest around social work in northern and remote areas, researchers also began attending to historical relationships of colonization and exploitation between urban and remote places (Pierce, 2017).

With a focus on economy as a driving societal force, Collier (2006) describes the relationship between urban and non-urban places as a subjugation of rural and remote areas to fuel economic growth in urban centres. Rather than focusing on the geographic characteristics of communities, he outlines three phases of economic societies and focuses on the interactions between them as a context for rural and remote social work practice. Collier highlights the practice implications of differing worldviews, notes that an emphasis on economic “development” often serves to increase inequality between rural or remote regions and cities, and urges rural social workers to commit themselves to understanding the social structures of the communities in which they work. Amidst discussion of the social and economic characteristics of rural, remote, and urban societies, Collier’s (2006) work largely fails to acknowledge the impact of local history, culture, and geography – all of which contribute to great diversity among communities that share similar economic roots – as well as the significant number of rural and remote social workers who work in or near their home communities.

Meanwhile, researchers at Canada’s Lakehead University such as Delaney and Brownlee (1995) have historically taken a broader perspective (Schmidt, 2009). This perspective extends beyond Collier’s political and economic take on rural and remote social work to consider elements of the northern environment and local communities – such as population size, relative isolation, and the presence of dual relationships – that influence the experience of living and practicing in northern and remote places (Schmidt, 2009).

Finally, scholars in Canada and internationally (Coates, 2003; Gray et al., 2013; Maidment & Bay, 2012; Zapf, 2009) have increasingly highlighted the need for social workers in rural and remote areas to develop awareness of the interactions between people, communities, and the natural and built environments in which we live. Fuelled by impacts upon marginalized communities, and recognizing the longstanding relationships of reciprocity between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, social work scholars have been exploring the myriad ways in which geography and place interact with human experiences and subsequently, with social work practice.

Unpacking Deficit-based Discourse

Literature on rural, remote, and northern social work focuses on themes such as culture shock for social workers newly arrived in remote places, staff burnout and retention challenges, lack of access to specialized services, experiences of isolation, and difficulty navigating dual relationships. As social workers with an ethical commitment to the pursuit of social justice and  competence in professional practice (Canadian Association of Social Workers [CASW], 2005), we have a responsibility to attend to such concerns. However, we equally have a responsibility to attend to the diversity of the populations and communities with whom we work and to advocate for change when mainstream approaches are imposed in ways that hinder our capacity for competent, ethical, and contextually-responsive practice.

Pierce (2017) observes that there are social workers who thrive in rural, remote, and northern practice and whose experiences of living and working in small communities are not accurately portrayed by the predominantly deficit-based descriptions in the literature. This deficit-based focus is often problematic in several ways. First, painting all rural, remote, and northern places with a similar (and deficit-based) brush ignores the diversity of people and places and may lead to imposing decisions that worked well in one place upon other places, irrespective of local context. Second, focusing on what is not going well can result in missed opportunities to learn from successes and build on local strengths. For social workers raised and educated in urban centres, academic discourse may be a primary source of information on what it is like to live and work in non-urban areas. If the story told of rural, remote, and northern places is exclusively one of poverty, social isolation, and lack of access to city conveniences – a story of what is “missing” – this story not only discourages social workers from seeking work in these places but also suggests that this lifestyle is something merely to be endured, preferably over the short term. As a result, practice is often promoted through incentives such as remote pay allowances and accelerated career promotion upon return to an urban centre. This narrative subtly and invariably invites questions about why anyone might choose to live in rural, remote, and northern areas, which is hardly a helpful mindset for social workers arriving in a community for the first time; it also may be particularly unwelcome for social workers (and other community members) who already call these places home.

Rather than continuing to look primarily at what is not working in rural, remote, and northern social work and what is considered lacking by urban standards, one alternative is to seek a more balanced view by exploring perspectives on what is working well and what social workers gain through experiences of living and working in smaller communities. Graham et al. (2008), for example, offer insight into both the successes and struggles experienced by social workers in remote northern contexts; the balanced view of their study may partly be attributable to the inclusion questions that specifically targeted negative and positive aspects of social workers’ experiences. Similarly, Pierce (2017) intentionally explores the narratives of social workers in British Columbia who have chosen to live and work long-term in remote northern communities—narratives that may be useful in understanding how social workers come to thrive in place.

Another approach to avoiding urban-centred and deficit-based discourse is to move from comparisons of urban and non-urban social work towards a more place-centred approach. This notion, along with specific implications in rural, remote, and northern contexts, is the focus of the following section.

Examples

What are your own thoughts and opinions about northern places and people?

  • How do you define north, and what do you consider a northern place?
  • If you have experiences in northern places, how have these informed your beliefs about “the north” and what it means to be a “northerner”?
  • If you have no (or few) experiences in northern places, where does your knowledge about these places come from? How do you know it to be true?

Place-Based Social Work

Within the considerable literature on rural, remote, and northern social work, many scholars have highlighted the central role of geography and place within social work practice (Maidment & Bay, 2012; Pierce, 2017; Pugh & Cheers, 2010; Schmidt, 2009; Zapf, 2009). More than simply an inanimate backdrop upon which human actions are carried out (Zapf, 2009), place has an active role and bearing upon human health, economy, politics, and social and cultural norms. People equally play a role in shaping place, through interactions with physical landscapes and by developing social meaning in spaces over time. Australian social work scholar Chenoweth (2012) describes the dynamic relationship between place and social meaning-making as follows:

Place is inextricably linked to the social, and is constantly being negotiated across social, cultural, historical and physical aspects of the environment. In rural areas, the history of and cultural meanings attached to landscape are influenced by the constant changing of place through natural events such as floods, droughts and different land uses. (p. 97)

In agricultural communities, industry towns, and communities where hunting and trapping are important contributors to food security, people’s health and livelihoods are often closely linked to the health and seasonal rhythms of their natural environment. For social workers new to rural or remote communities, developing an understanding of the relationships between people and place can provide a strong foundation for adapting and applying social work skills in a meaningful and relevant way.

People as Place

Zapf’s (2009) proposal of “people as place” as a foundational metaphor for social work practice discusses the meanings of “place” and “space”; considers implications of place in rural, remote, and northern communities; and reflects upon Indigenous perspectives of land and place connection.

The “person-in-environment” model, which positions individuals in the context of their social environments, has been foundational to social work for several decades (Zapf, 2009). This approach to practice has encouraged social workers to look beyond individual factors, consider interactions within and between social systems, and integrate practice at micro, mezzo, and macro levels. The person-in-environment model has received criticism for not addressing the larger structural forces that create and reinforce social inequities (Zapf, 2009). Scholars writing about environmental and eco-social work have also critiqued the incongruency between the language of “ecological” or “person-in-environment” approaches and the prevailing exclusion of natural ecosystems and built environments from social work discourse (Jones, 2010; Zapf, 2009). In a seminal contribution to the literature on social work and the environment, Zapf (2009) asserts that consideration of people’s natural and built surroundings – in addition to their social environments – offers a more holistic approach to practice. To aid social workers in accounting for the diverse environmental factors that influence, and are influenced by, individuals and communities, Zapf proposes a transition away from the traditional “person-in-environment” model towards a more integrative metaphor of “people as place.”

Drawing on Morito’s (2002) notion of ecological thinking, Zapf (2009) encourages social workers to go beyond simply “thinking about ecology” and instead cultivate the capacity to think more holistically about issues spanning social and environmental concerns (p. 24). In bringing together place-based thinking from multiple areas of social work, including rural and remote practice, spirituality and social work, Indigenous social work, and international social work, Zapf explores many existing entry points within social work that can contribute to discussions on the significance of place within practice.

Zapf also looks beyond social work to other disciplines, turning to the fields of geography, education, environmental design, sociology, and art (among others) to gain insight into the relationships between people and place. Together with social work and interdisciplinary knowledge, he advocates for a paradigm shift within social work that recognizes the connectedness of people and place. In response to Zapf’s call to action for social workers to find ways to integrate place into their work, we need to consider what is meant by “place” and how place intersects with social work practice.

Defining Place

As suggested by Chenoweth (2012) in her description of the reciprocal relationships between physical landscapes and social meaning-making, place is more than just a physical location. Looking to the field of human geography, “space” can be defined as a geographical area, while “place” exists within space and is defined by the meaning it holds for people who live there (Pierce, 2017). Put slightly differently, Zapf (2009) reasons that “place has something to do with location plus the meaning ascribed to the location” (p. 146).

Susan Kemp (2011) observes that place is both dynamic and relational and is subject to change over time and often evolves through interactions with individuals, communities, and social structures. She notes that a single place can carry multiple meanings – and multiple histories, through remembered meanings – for different people at any one time. However, when people – even members of the same community or cultural group – have differing beliefs about the meaning, history, or value of a particular place, tensions and conflicts can arise (Zapf, 2009). When one group is in a position of power over others, the more powerful group’s beliefs about the meaning, significance, and role of place can influence the ways in which other groups experience, perceive, and relate to place over time. As human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1979) asserts, place is “a reality to be clarified and understood from the perspectives of the people who have given it meaning” (p. 387). However, recalling that a single place can hold different meanings for different people, it is also essential to consider whose voices are heard – and whose are not – when exploring the meaning of place.

In rural and remote practice, social workers will often imbue the landscape with their own meanings over time, through a process of coming-to-know that can eventually transform an unfamiliar space into a place that feels familiar and well-known (see Pierce, 2017). However, to engage in place-based social work, it is critical that the meaning(s) and significance of place also be explored from the perspectives of the people who call this place home.

Examples

Think of a place that is important to you now, or that was important to you at another time in your life. Take a moment and remember this place in as much detail as you can, with all of your senses. Then consider the following reflection questions:

  • What experiences or traditions helped form your relationship to this place?
  • How have people influenced this place throughout history?
  • How has this place influenced you?
  • If you wanted to share the meaning this place holds for you with another person, what activities or traditions might you invite them to take part in?
  • If you wanted to share the meaning of this place with others, how might you go about it? Through photos? Stories? By inviting people to come and experience the place firsthand?
Implications of Place in Rural, Remote, and Northern Practice

To take up Zapf’s (2009) challenge to develop social work practice that is rooted in place requires recognition of the myriad ways in which place and people are connected. With the intentional wording of “people as place,” Zapf emphasizes the reciprocal relationships between people and the places they inhabit. These relationships are often particularly evident in rural, remote, and northern regions, where the rhythms of people’s lives and livelihoods can be closely linked to local geography, weather and climate, seasonal changes, and the social, cultural, and economic opportunities afforded by the built and natural environment.

For social workers leaving an urban centre to work in a rural or remote location, the first indication of the significance of place may become clear during travel. For rural and remote residents, travelling longer distances to access services in a nearby town or city is commonplace. Depending on local climate, geography, and infrastructure, other barriers to travel may also exist beyond the length of the journey. Many remote and northern communities rely on several modes of transportation (boat, ferry, train, float plane, or helicopter) for part or all of the year, while some communities also have seasonal transportation options such as ice roads. Regardless of the type of transportation available, travel into and out of remote places is determined by changing weather conditions and the availability of daylight hours (shorter windows of daylight), which varies based on latitude and time of year.

While social workers may either enjoy remote travel or accept it as an inconvenient necessity of the job, travel can be an acutely determining force in rural and remote locations. The arrival of an all-weather road to a previously fly-in community, for example, may be hailed by some community members as an important step forward that increases access to “outside” services. Other community members, however, may feel any potential benefits are outweighed by the risks of increased access, such as the possibility of motor vehicle accidents along isolated stretches of road, and disruptions to local wildlife populations and traditional hunting or harvesting grounds. It is important to consider not only that local perceptions of remote place and travel may differ from urban expectations, but also that there is likely to be a diversity of opinions between communities and even among community members.

Physical infrastructure is another factor that contributes to the experience of place and the way social relationships are developed and maintained: Are there indoor community gathering spaces? Is there physical infrastructure to hold recreation programs for children and youth? Are there stores in the community that sell food and other essential items? The availability of resources to meet basic needs, such as safe housing and clean drinking water, is a significant aspect of physical infrastructure that has a direct influence upon people’s health and well-being and affects experiences of living in place. Access to education within local communities is also important. Without local access to education, children must commute elsewhere to attend school daily, and in many cases youth from rural and remote areas must relocate to larger urban centres to attend high school and post-secondary education. Faced with the prospect of leaving their homes and families behind to attend school, some youth choose not to attend at all. By contrast, some rural and remote communities face an exodus of young people who leave for higher education and training and choose to continue living elsewhere. This is particularly a concern for rural agricultural communities, where young people are choosing to seek employment elsewhere rather than take over family farms that have traditionally been passed down to the next generation (Pletsch et al., 2012).

Economic opportunities and the resulting impacts upon people’s livelihoods and daily and seasonal rhythms can be closely tied to geography, climate, and the natural resources available around the community. Rural agricultural communities have seasonal rhythms of planting and harvest that often shape community events and can lead to shared values and ways of living. The impacts of severe weather events such as flooding or drought, cases of insect infestations or livestock disease, or economic shifts, can have devastating impacts on entire communities. For example, the 2003 discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in Canada brought severe financial hardship to many farming families as well as businesses that relied on the agricultural community to fuel the local economy (Pletsch et al., 2012). Many farmers and their families also experienced negative effects upon their mental and physical health, due to financial stress and – for some – the loss of connection to place and to a way of life for those who had to sell their farms (Pletsch et al., 2012).

Some rural and remote communities have economies based in natural resource extraction, management, or development projects, such as mining, forestry, oil and gas, and hydroelectric dam construction. Such projects can be highly contentious, in no small part because of their potential to have long-lasting impacts upon people and place. Economically, natural resource industries and “industry towns” are often characterized by boom-and-bust cycles, where communities can see an enormous influx of workers and rapid local economic growth, followed by “bust” periods that at their most extreme can result in ghost towns, or places mostly abandoned due to a reduction in economic activity. For people in remote communities who may otherwise have few potential job options close to home, the opportunity to participate in nearby industry activities is attractive. At the same time, resource projects across the country have raised social justice concerns. Racialized people and people with low socio-economic status are disproportionately influenced by the environmental effects of industrial waste and agricultural pollution (Bay, 2014) and Indigenous women and girls in particular have been affected by the influx of (often male) workers arriving at work sites in rural and remote areas (Women’s Earth Alliance & Native Youth Sexual Health Network, 2016). Chief Bernard Ominayak, writing about the effects of resource exploitation upon the Lubicon Lake people of northern Alberta, describes that “[t]he benefits of resource exploitation in our traditional territory flow to outsiders. Yet the full impacts of those decisions are felt here, by our people” (Ominayak & Thomas, 2009, p. 112).

Finally, many people in rural, remote, and northern communities have social, cultural, and spiritual practices that are linked closely to place. While no two Indigenous communities are exactly alike, traditional Indigenous cultural values often include a belief in the importance of living in harmony with nature (Baskin, 2016). Indigenous communities that engage in traditional means of gathering food often have seasonal patterns of hunting, trapping, fishing, and harvesting that are responsive to the health and availability of local plants and wildlife. These patterns – which may include seasonal camps – can be an important contribution to food security in addition to strengthening cultural, spiritual, and social connections among community members and with the land.

Collier (2006), when discussing the influence of economic factors in rural and remote communities, suggests that behaviours that would seem odd through an urban lens often make perfect sense in the context of local rural knowledge, values, and beliefs. It is consequently important for social workers – regardless of whether or not they are coming from an urban background – to contextualize their observations and (importantly) explore the meanings held by community members about the places they live, the ways in which they travel, and the influence of economy and infrastructure in their lives.

Land and Indigenous Peoples

As noted earlier, power can play a role in determining how places are perceived and experienced. With power comes the potential for dominant groups to impose their views of place upon others. Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012), for example, writes that the impacts of Western colonization in Aotearoa/New Zealand have not only altered physical landscapes but have also affected the ways in which Indigenous people relate to the places and spaces around them. She describes that

For the indigenous [sic] world, Western conceptions of space, of arrangements and display, of the relationship between people and the landscape, of culture as an object of study, have meant that not only has the indigenous world been represented in particular ways back to the West, but the indigenous world view, the land and the people, have been radically transformed […]. In other words, indigenous space has been colonized. (p. 53)

 

Colonization in Canada is also rooted in the issue of land (Baskin, 2016; Kennedy-Kish et al., 2017; King, 2013), and although the colonization of Indigenous space in Canada began well before the advent of social work, social workers have a long history of involvement in settler-colonial processes. In removing Indigenous children from their families and communities, first in concert with the residential school system and then increasingly through the “60s scoop” (Blackstock, 2009), social workers displaced these children from the places they called home (Kennedy-Kish et al., 2017). Even now – and often despite the best efforts of social workers, family members, and other caregivers – Indigenous children in foster care continue to experience not only the loss of connection to their family, culture, and community, but also the loss of physical belonging to land and place. A recent report by the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth (2021) shares the story of a young Dene girl named Skye who died while in foster care in 2017. Her story is sadly similar to that of Richard Cardinal, a Metis child who also died in foster care in 1984. Living in multiple foster homes throughout their childhoods, both children expressed a desire to return to the places they were from or where they had experienced a sense of belonging (Obomsawin, 1986; Representative for Children and Youth, 2021). Neither child was able to return home until after their death (Obomsawin, 1986; Representative for Children and Youth, 2021).

As social workers responsible for children – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – it is imperative to consider the importance of attachment to place. While it is not always possible to place children in foster homes within their home communities, efforts can be made to consider the impacts of displacement and to find ways to support experiences of physical belonging both through visits home and through experiences of belonging and connection in other ways.

For social workers practicing anywhere in Canada, it is critical to foster an awareness of the history of the lands we practice upon (see learning/activity box below), the implications of this history for the people we work with, and the dynamics of power and place that continue to define the landscape and shape interactions between people and place.

Examples
  • What is the history of the land where you practice?
  • Whose place is it?
  • What brought you to this place?
  • How do you relate to this place?

Practicing in Place

In response to Zapf’s (2009) call for social workers to incorporate a metaphor of “people as place” as a foundation for practice, this chapter has outlined “place” as both a location in space and the meaning attributed to this location. Place – including the natural and built environment – is consequential for the lives and livelihoods of people in rural, remote, and northern regions. As a dynamic and relational concept, place has the potential to evolve, hold distinct meanings for diverse people, and both influence and be changed by power and politics. Grounded in an understanding of place as dynamic, relational, and defined by the people who live there, what might it look like to integrate a model of “people as place” into rural, remote, and northern practice? This section explores ways in which social workers experience, interact with, make, and practice in place.

Brian Cheers (2004), an Australian social work scholar, describes his experience of rural practice as an active, ongoing process. In his words,

I, and you, bring to the conversation my, and your, particular place. It is the only one there is. It is an open, dynamic mosaic; a place where lives, livelihoods, environment, culture, and governance meet; a place where community, services, policy, and professional narratives intersect. Things happen in places.

But I haven’t come here dragging my place behind me – kicking and barking like some bewildered cattle dog on a sheep station. It lives through me. I make the space I live in my place by giving it meaning as I go about my daily living. The rural practitioner does not sit outside, mysteriously materializing in the space of the community to, just as mysteriously, disappear back to some well-ordered, comfortable, well-to-do planet of professionals when their day’s work is done.

If my place is unique, then so, too, is my practice. I invent it as I go along. I don’t do my practice – I make it in places. (p. 9)

 

In this excerpt, Cheers captures multiple important elements of practicing in place, providing a solid basis for imagining what a practice of “people as place” might look like and developing place-based principles of practice in rural and remote practice. This section focuses on each of these elements in turn.

Reflective Practice

Social work students are commonly asked to reflect upon their personal positioning, or social location, in relation to social constructs such as race, gender, and socio-economic status. Less often are they urged to consider the intersection of their social location with the physical spaces they inhabit. As Cheers (2004) observes, “I, and you, bring to the conversation my, and your, particular place” (p. 9). Social workers and service users alike carry personal and collective experiences of space and place that shape their beliefs and influence their interactions with the world around them. As social workers, it is worth reflecting upon the convergence of “particular places” that are brought together through social interactions. In these interactions, whose experiences and ways of being in place are prioritized? Knowledge is created in places (de Leeuw & Hunt, 2018) and engaging in reflective place-based practice requires consideration of where knowledge came from, as well as how experiences of place contribute to different worldviews.

Space and Place

At the core of place-based practice is a willingness to acknowledge and explore space and place in order to inform approaches that are relevant and responsive to local context. As Cheers (2004, p. 9) observes, “[t]hings happen in places”; and yet, social systems and relationships are too often removed from the spaces and places where they occur. By recognizing that social realities are constantly unfolding in places, social workers can gain greater insight into the strengths, challenges, and relationships of people, communities, and systems, ultimately supporting the development of holistic solutions to social problems. As factors that influence well-being and play a role in social interactions, space and place can influence power dynamics, relationships, and the likelihood that people will feel comfortable seeking support from a social worker in their community. Recalling that places are dynamic, relational, and defined by the people who live there, it is important not just to develop a static understanding of place, but to engage in a continuous process of exploring the significance of spaces and places.

Place-Making as Process

Cheers remarks upon the process of place-creation as he states that “I make the space I live in my place by giving it meaning as I go about my daily living” (2004, p. 9). People make spaces into places through interaction and relationships over time, a process that holds particular importance for social workers arriving in rural, remote, or northern communities for the first time. For example, Pierce (2017) recounts the experience of a social worker who came to a remote place and, through being open to and engaging in the process of being in place, learned that

[p]eople here need to know you so they can place you within the community. It’s a real collective way of knowing and being. People here know who to go to for specific things, such as, guidance, or fishing, so for me to work effectively, people here need to understand how I fit in their place. (p. 157)

 

This example of a place-based practice shows the process of a social worker beginning to make her practice in place. Over time, a place-based focus meant this social worker felt she was able to understand the meaning of her work and bond with her particular place. Simultaneously, the community was also engaging with the social worker to place her within the existing context of their place, highlighting the influence place has on practice.

In addition to developing a personal sense of place over time, social workers can also engage in collaborative processes of place-making with the people they work with. Cultivating a sense of place through shared experiences may not only assist social workers in developing a better sense of the meaning of place for the people who live there, but also form part of social work practice and interventions.

Creating Practice in Place

The excerpt from Cheers concludes with the assertion that “[i]f my place is unique, then so, too, is my practice. I invent it as I go along. I don’t do my practice – I make it in places” (2004, p. 9). Indeed, just as people engage in continual processes of place-making over time as spaces take on new meaning, rural and remote social workers often create their practice through interactions and relationships over time. With an asset-based focus, building place-based practice often includes identifying, learning from, and contributing to existing helpers and systems of support within the community. In drawing upon available resources and allowing practice to emerge from what is needed, place-based practitioners are well-positioned to be responsive to local context.

Creating practice in place and being responsive to context also require an awareness of the closely woven and reciprocal relationships that are common in smaller communities. These relationships can lead to ripple effects, as captured in the following reflection  by a social worker doing place-based work:

You get to work with people in different ways and things are way slower paced; it’s beautiful here. It is kind of like if you pictured a beautiful big spider’s web sparkling in the sunshine. Each thread is extremely fragile on its own and sparkles in its own way, but each thread is also connected to another thread which is connected to the larger structure which makes it strong. The web has been built in a specific place that has meaning to why it is there. Equally, if you damage one thread, the entire structure is compromised. You have to practice thinking about all those pieces with each decision you make. (as cited in Pierce, 2017, p. 119)

 

These ripple effects – described by this social worker as a spider’s web – highlight the imperative of attending to the context of people and place or, as Cheers writes, when “making practice” in rural, remote, and northern communities.

Conclusion

Zapf (2009) encourages social workers to consider the fundamental interconnectedness of people and their physical environments through a metaphor of “people as place.” For rural, remote, and northern social workers who are interested in this metaphor, the next step is apply it to practice. However, neither making place nor creating practice are goals to be achieved; both are ongoing processes of coming to know and learning to be in a place in ways that promote personal and community well-being. Pierce (2017) writes that none of the remote and northern social workers in her study could indicate a specific moment at which they suddenly knew or understood place-situated practice that resulted in their wanting to stay; rather, it was only by reflecting upon their process of being in place and then narrating this process that they realized it was multiple exchanges, experiences, and moments that contributed to their coming to stay in place.

Place-based practice in rural, remote, and northern communities is necessarily as diverse as the people who call – and make – these places home. There is no simple, one-step, quick, or easy guide to practicing in rural, remote, and northern places, just as there is no single approach to effective social work practice in urban areas. Although the idea of “creating” practice in place may seem daunting, it also holds the potential to be a fascinating and deeply meaningful experience.

Whether returning home or entering a rural, remote, or northern place for the first time, most social workers arrive equipped with the foundational skills and knowledge needed to build their practice. What if social workers also arrived equipped with skills of place-based reflection, an awareness of and openness to process, and a keen interest in the meanings of place held by the people and communities they worked with? Learning to be in place and to engage in place-based practice may be one way for social workers to experience not only working, but also living and thriving, in rural, remote, and northern communities.

Activities and Assignments

Although developing a relationship with people and place – and subsequently engaging in place-based practice – is a personal experience that can vary widely between practitioners and locales, it can be helpful to connect with other social workers engaged in similar work. Connections can take place by bringing together social workers in a community of practice, or by seeking supervision or mentorship from a social worker with significant experience in – and if possible, a passion for – rural, remote, and northern practice.

  • What do you think would be your preferred form(s) of support if you were to work in a rural, remote, or northern community?
  • How would you go about finding these social workers? What existing networks could you use?
  • What initial questions might you have for a rural, remote, or northern social work mentor? How could you explore these questions now?
Additional Resources
  • Cheers, B. (2004). The place of care – rural human services on the fringe. Rural Social Work, 9, 9-22.
  • Pfeifer, P. (2018). From the credibility gap to capacity building: An Inuit critique of Canadian Arctic research. Northern Public Affairs, 6(1), 29-34.
  • Pierce, J. (2017). How we came to stay: Narratives of social workers in remote northern regions of British Columbia [Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia]. University of British Columbia Open Collections.
  • Zapf, M. K. (2009). Social work and the environment: Understanding people and place. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

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Rural and Northern Social Work Practice: Canadian Perspectives by Joanna Pierce and Tavia McKinnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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