Where is Here? The Art of Place

The 2019 Policy Community Conference offered participants a unique experience to reflect and connect with Place. Susan Johnston, creator and curator of this field trip shares the process behind the scenes. 

”Creating opportunities for others to explore how they position themselves within the story/stories of Canada has proved to be, for me, one of the most useful tools in transformative learning.”  
- Jonathan Dewar

New ways to see our work

Small signs resembling OCTranspo bus stop signs

As public servants, finding and creating new ways to see our work and its impact is critical to understanding and harnessing the disruption around us. 

So how can we begin to do this? How might we establish direct connections between our work and the people and places it touches? How can we better integrate multiple points of view? 

One approach is by creating “learning journeys”. In this case, it means gathering a group, visiting a place that’s relevant to the topic of discussion, some pre and post-visit reflection, plus a chance to think about how what we learned could be relevant in the future. In terms of structure, it means exploring places, considering perspectives, and trying new forms of participation. 

When the Policy Community conference organizers invited our new Transferable Skills team at CSPS to pilot learning journeys in the form of field trips, we jumped at the chance.

The Challenge

How might we...explore policy issues around land through the lenses of “art” and “place”?

It was a snowy day last December when I met with the Policy Community team to talk about setting an intention, and what kind of field trip we could consider. We agreed we wanted to open some new ways to think about reconciliation, and that we wanted to highlight how we could use the arts as a tool for engaging with policy questions. We set some learning objectives (more on that later) and got to work.

Key Components for Learning Journeys

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” – John LeCarre

Where is here? What can we see? Who will we meet? How can we understand various ways to see, and be in relationship with, the land or built environment? Your learning journey will involve three components: 

A place

A visit to a place of local significance.

This edition was 10 minute walk/roll away from the Conference location.


Pre and post-visit reflection on perspectives. 

Participants need a curious mind to explore multiple ways of seeing. 


Consider future possibilities while interacting with the surroundings and other participants.

Setting the scene

Downtown Ottawa is rich in history, and the contemporary city is rich in significance for people and for people working on what is broadly understood as policy. So many conversations about policy take place in Ottawa, yet are often separate from “Ottawa” the city, and the land itself. Those worlds don’t often collide. We were excited to test a way to better link the two.

The next challenge: how could we meaningfully explore multiple locations conducive to conversation and learning, when we had a total of two hours (including walking time)? Also: winter. Ottawa can be chilly in February, so we wanted to manage potential outside time, and likely inclement weather. We got our maps out. By starting at (and exploring) the National Arts Centre (NAC), we could also visit the Rideau Canal via the MacKenzie King Bridge, and the renewed Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG), with a fantastic mandate for Indigenous and community programming. Perfect.

That said, I’m not indigenous. So who am I to pursue this topic? While I have been learning as much as I can, I’m also clear on why it matters so much to consider who has voice and how we’re learning about reconciliation. Fortunately, one of my own teachers, Jonathan Dewar, was open to tag-teaming. 


"Perhaps one element of reconciliation is knowing that the story of this space/place is the story of diverse First Nations and Inuit from time immemorial...through contact with Europeans...through centuries of cooperation and conflict, trade, treaty, and colonization, love and friendship, hardship, betrayal...through fair and forced settling, immigration, and (many forms of) migration...through the birth, marginalization, and resurgence of the Métis Nation...through relationship with, resistance to, and suppression by the Crown...through the privileged negotiation of the terms of Confederation toward the establishment of the modern nation state that is Canada...through its reliance on/reluctance toward (non-white) immigration...through and toward many individual, community, and national accomplishments across the wonderful diversity of languages and cultures of this land." 

- Jonathan Dewar

Source: Jonathan Dewar. Dance with us as you can…: Art, Artist, and Witness(ing) in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey.

Jonathan Dewar addressing field trip participants in their winter coat

Jonathan opened the conversation with a discussion about naming our own respective privilege, and paired up participants so they could share both an experience that personified Ottawa for them, as well as a story about why the place they say they are from held meaning for them.

Before starting our walk, we shared cards with a set of questions, and invited participants to consider them over our time together. While our group explored much of the Ottawa Art Gallery on the first day, on the second day we concentrated our time at an exhibit of Michael Belmore and A.J. Casson’s work, “Conferences and Tributaries”.

In between

We gave participants a card with some questions to consider in pairs while walking between locations.

  1. Where are you "from"?
  2. In what way(s) are you connected to "here"? To the...Capital? The City? The Land?
  3. What systems do you see at play? In what ways do you/don't you feel welcome "here"?
  4. What issues or challenges do you see or experience as you explore this system?
  5. [How] Could (or should) we connect more deeply with "place", particularly as policy practitioners?
  6. How might, or do, the Arts inform how we understand, and work with, our topics?
  7. What ideas does this experience spark that you may want to consider, or suggest to others?
  8. What other questions are you left with? 
Tweet by Daphne Guerrero

We talked about art as a tool to open our ways of thinking, about galleries as a space for deliberation, and about the artists’ approaches to evoking the land and its significance. Later, we shared links to the material we discussed and options for further reading

Our Objectives

Field trip participants standing in a wide circle, inside the gallery exhibition, listening to Gallery staff.

My parents often talk about the value of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”. That, furthered by Hal Hamilton’s 2014 article about bringing food industry, fair trade, and social justice organizations together to explore sustainable food systems, has kept me curious about what we might accomplish when we connect people and place more deeply.

According to Hamilton, “the first step toward becoming a system leader is to develop the capacity to see the system through the eyes of others.”

We designed the Field Trip with three learning objectives in mind:

  • “Get Out”: Expand and enrich your way of exploring and discovering a policy issue;
  • “Get Out of your Own Way: Pay attention to how you react to something new, your own assumptions and how they may block your discovery;
  • “Give Something Back”: Connect with others to make sense of what you have learned.

They appear to have resonated. Several respondents in our post-conference survey noted the Field Trip as the conference element that most challenged their thinking or sparked their curiosity.

Our team, and the conference organizers, learned so much from building this proof-of-concept. I would love to run it again, and perhaps invite an elder, or a group of artists or storytellers, to join us and offer additional interpretation and guidance.

Make your own field trip

Want to create a learning journey of your own? Here are some questions to get you started.

Personally, I found the design process a rich experience in its own right. Here are a few considerations to get you started: 

  • Begin with a question. What are you curious about, and how might the exposure to new places or people help you consider your topic?
  • When thinking about places, simpler is often better. When in doubt, start by looking around and considering what kind of policies or regulations are reflected in the spaces within 100 or 200 metres of where you are sitting.
  • Staying close to your starting point reduces costs (and most likely your carbon footprint), time spent traveling between locations, plus potential accessibility and logistics issues. In our case we had to consider the weather.
  • Keeping the group sizes fairly small maximizes potential interactivity. We capped the Policy Community Conference sessions at 20 participants, and ran it twice.

If you do create a Field Trip of your own, we would love to hear how it went, and in particular what you learned. Please drop me a line at Susan.Johnston@canada.ca anytime.