This past week, a consultation was held in Vankleek Hill about the future of the Catholic church in the area. About 40 people attended, each person was asked what importance attending mass holds. Many points were raised, but a common one was that the church is a community where people feel a sense of belonging. It was interesting to hear people express the importance of a sense of belonging – it is not something we generally speak about explicitly. But it is arguably part of what is at risk when we consider closing libraries, like in Dalkeith, or schools, like in Alexandria.
And it is not just new-age sorts who would consider “community belonging” something worth protecting. Statistics Canada measures it, saying “research has established links between social networks and health outcomes. Social isolation tends to be detrimental to health, while social engagement and attachment are associated with positive health outcomes.” Community belonging is “highly correlated with physical and mental health,” Stats Can says.
Many people, it seems, value a sense of belonging instinctively. But, faced with hard arguments about how many people use a library or how many empty spaces are left in a school, it can be difficult to express exactly why we need to spend money just so a small community hub can stay open or kids can attend a school close to home.
The “Glengarry SOS” movement has done an uncommonly good job expressing why Alexandria needs a high school. They have pointed out the many services and opportunities available for young people in Alexandria – sports, cultural centres, and job opportunities. There are many ways in for young people to cultivate a sense of belonging in the area – whether it’s at school, by playing sports, or at work. And, having a diverse community, including people of all ages, is good for everyone. Attracting more young people is one of the goals of the ongoing consultation process about local Catholic churches – at the recent meeting, only a few of the attendees had school-age children.
In Dalkeith, a group of citizens, with the help of the local government, was able to re-open the library. Brenda Noble, one of the leaders of the group, acknowledges that the library is about more than books – it’s also a social hub. It’s that aspect of the library, more than the availability of books, which made the reaction to the library’s closure so visceral.
In Alexandria, we can’t hope for the same solution. If enrolment is declining and buildings are sitting empty, of course something needs to change at the Upper Canada District School Board. But it is hoped that a more creative solution than simply closing GDHS can be found. Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MPP Grant Crack has voiced support for the school, and in a statement posted on Facebook, said he is “convinced that a positive solution to this situation does exist, and to get there, it’ll take the community and the board coming together to realize a shared vision.”
When people react so strongly to the closure of a library or a school, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an emotional outburst. As we already noted, community belonging has been linked to physical and mental health. Protecting what makes our communities strong isn’t just an emotional decision, but a logical one.