People power

September 10, 2013
Stephanie Harrington
Phillip Vannini and research assistant Jonathan Taggart visited remote corners of the country to document Canadians living off-the-grid

Forget planes, trains and automobiles. Phillip Vannini’s cross-country study of Canadians living off-the-grid has redefined the concept of gruelling travel.

Over two years, Prof. Vannini, from Royal Roads’ School of Communication and Culture, ventured to some of the remotest corners of the country, including an 80kilometre Skidoo trip to Andrew Gordon Bay, near Cape Dorset, Nunavut, where he fished for Arctic char that had to be eaten raw before it froze.

Vannini, and research assistant Jonathan Taggart, braved a single-engine Cessna in February to reach a home in northern Saskatchewan’s boreal forest, 100km from the nearest road and accessible only by ski- or float-plane. But it was all in the name of public good. The Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography visited 10 provinces and three territories, including 98 homes and one school, and interviewed nearly 200 people. The experience challenged Vannini.

“This project over the last two years has raised infinitely my concept of fear,” he says. “I was petrified of grizzly bears. I still don’t like them but I’m very comfortable jumping into a river and having my one shower of the week. I never had to swim, which is good because I’m not the best swimmer.”

The odyssey, which started in May 2011 and finished in July, involved flying 65,000km on 52 planes, numerous car rentals, and modes of transport including snowshoes, canoe, kayak and mountain bike. And while the sights were spectacular, it was what Vannini heard that left the deepest impression.

“Sound is probably the most distinctive sensation of this project. We travelled to urban and remote places and the more remote places had the thickest quiet. You could slice it with a knife.”

Although off-the-grid means being disconnected from electricity and natural gas infrastructure, people Vannini interviewed were self-reliant in many other ways, including water, food and sewage. Whether they were motivated by a need for independence, living sustainably, saving money or simply the challenge, the resourcefulness of these off-the-grid pioneers continues to amaze Vannini.

“They are incredibly resilient and talented people. They can fashion a water wheel out of spoons or create thermal energy with milk jugs and soy sauce containers. One thing that stands out in my mind when it comes to inventiveness, is those with the least economic means were the most inventive,” Vannini says.

Take the video (below) Taggart produced about a thrifty Ontario couple, Murray and Nan, living in the woods for 17 years as an example. In one scene, Murray grinds flour using an exercise-bike powered mill as a kind of penance for watching Saturday night hockey on television.

“This is camp life taken somewhat to an extreme,” Murray says in the video.


Taggart, a Master of Arts in Intercultural and International Communication (MAIIC) graduate, captured footage and took photographs as part of the research assistant position, which he described as a student’s dream job. Enrolled to start a PhD at the University of British Columbia this autumn, Taggart says the project opened his mind to how cultural research can be made accessible to the public, an area of study called public ethnography.

“I come from a background in documentary photography and film. What this has added to my skill set is an understanding that these same skills can be used in a research context. With a little more work, it can become something that lives in an entirely different realm,” says Taggart, an award-winning photojournalist. “It quite literally changed the direction of my career. I relate less and less to my journalistic roots.”

Taggart, along with classmates Lindsay Vogan and Kate O’Rourke, who both assisted with public relations and helped bring media interest to the project, were a source of help and expertise for Vannini. The team documented the project online through blogs in the Huffington Post and on Public Ethnography’s website, as well as through audio documentaries, videos and academic journal articles.

“They not only have learned new skills important for their careers but they also taught me a lot. For these three students, it’s been a very rewarding experience. It speaks to the idea of innovative learning,” Vannini says.

Taggart and Vannini are now working on a video documentary and book about the project. Vannini plans to show the film at festivals in 2014 and display the photographs in a travelling exhibition, as well as at Royal Roads. Ultimately, Vannini hopes stories about these tough and determined Canadians will inspire others to conserve, even in small ways.

“The reality is, it’s work. We don’t have the resourcefulness people living off-the-grid need to survive and to live comfortably. It requires maintenance and a great deal of mindfulness,” Vannini says.

“We often live carelessly and they can’t. They don’t want to. Everyone I met enjoyed their off-the-grid lifestyle tremendously. By relying on renewable resources they have not made their life worse. What I want is for people to get a positive message about conservation.”