Learning is Living
La Cité Ecologique, Canada and USA
La Cité Ecologique started in Canada in 1984 as an alternative school based on holistic education. Today La Cité has two ecovillages - one in Quebec with 90 inhabitants and another in New Hampshire with 40 inhabitants. The glue that keeps the two communities together is the shared focus on care for children and youth. Marie Vaillant moved in as a teenager with her family and later became the director of the second ecovillage.
My family moved to La Cité Ecologique when I was 14 years old, in February 1984. In 1983, teacher Michael Deunov led a Summer Camp for kids which was based on respect for nature, organic farming, and developing better communication amongst people. I didn’t participate in the Summer Camp myself, but my sister and my brother did. And when they came back home, they were fulfilled and inspired and said to my mom “this is the kind of school we want to go to!”
That fall, many parents contacted Michael Deunov and talked about the reaction of their children. Michael replied, “Ok, if there’s a group of parents that want to start a school, let´s sit together and consider all the conditions and rules. We can realise it with the involvement of all parents.”
In November 1983, when my mom returned from that meeting she said, “This is where I want to move. I want to build a school with Michael."
We were amongst the first 15 families that moved into Ham-Nord to start La Cité Ecologique and the school.
All the people involved sold their homes, invested their savings to build houses and the school buildings. After a couple of years, they needed to start businesses around the school to be able to support their living. All the businesses we started also had the aim of raising environmental consciousness. This is how La Cité started.
I was the only one in the family that didn’t want to move to La Cité. My mom made a deal with me saying, “lets try it for one year, and if you don’t like it we’ll move somewhere else.” But after a year in La Cité, I wanted to stay. I completed my school and said to the founder, “I think I could be a good secretary for you.” He said, “There are many people who want to be my assistant.” Always having loved challenges I replied, "I’ll be the best." Michael said, “If you want to be my assistant, you need to learn and work within all our businesses and our organizations.”
And this is what I did. At La Cité Ecologique in Ham-Nord we have 8 different businesses. I gained experience by working in the farm, in the school, in the construction department and in the community kitchen. I travelled all over Quebec to sell the organic food we were producing. Then, I was put in charge of creating a theatre play with the title “Stop Pollution”. We performed in many schools to promote and sensitize teenagers about the importance of environmental conservation.
After years of training I said to Michael,“I am ready to be your assistant and to show you that you can count on me.” He said “Yes”, and I said: “Ok, so what’s next?”
And he said, “We already run a business called Kheops International with the mission of selling meaningful gifts. You’ll be in charge of opening a US branch for that company." It was 1994 and I was 24 years old. Opening Kheops International in Florida was a big challenge for me, but I was glad to do it. In that same year I became Michael´s wife. So - this also became a love story.
My third big challenge took place ten years later when we moved the Kheops branch from Florida to New Hampshire. There I became the general manager and also opened the second ecovillage in Colebrook, New Hampshire.
Until now, the main focus of the community has been the school and education of children. We have 22 educational principles on respect of nature, of ourselves, of our parents and teachers and basically of everything that is around us. Everyone in the community is trying as much as they can to practice these educational principles
Many of us are involved in teaching or other activities of the school. The glue of the community is our children. We have always wanted to give them the best education and environment that we can, support them as they grow up, support their dreams, goals and projects.
We try to make learning more alive. The school offers Mathematics and French and English. But instead of just learning through a book, the children will go to the kitchen and learn how to write down a recipe or to the construction site and see how people build. And with this they will practice their mathematics, French or English. They will develop social skills within the community. And when they come back to the classroom, they reflect and report.
We try to integrate all the elements of everyday life in the classroom. In spring we go into the gardens and learn: “What do I need to nourish the soil? Which plant could go well with that plant?” When we teach about the five religions, we learn for about Hinduism by creating a theatre play, cooking an Indian meal and wearing Indian dresses. Our pupils learn about cultures and religions through all their senses.
To be able to run our school we have made an agreement with the education department of Quebec. It took a couple of years to establish this agreement, however since that time everything has been going smoothly. Every year our children have to pass the same test as other children in the province. And as they always have very good results, we have gained credibility. But we worked hard to achieve that.
Next Generation in Power
We have slowly and smoothly passed on the management of the community to the second generation. Nobody from the first generation is still on the board of La Cité. But they are still around to support and help if needed.
At the age of 17, 18, or 19 our young people get a chance to be on the Board and learn about the management of La Cite. When they have completed their high school graduation, we sit with them and ask “What do you want to learn? What do you want to experience?” and then we make space for them. This is not always easy for the elders, but the results are good for all. Most young people want to stay in La Cité.
Being with children every day is a very fulfilling part of my life. To have the chance to know the teenagers and to do things with them nourishes my soul. Because of my work, they can have a good education, good food, a good environment and this is one of the things I’m very proud of.
Each family lives in their house. From Monday to Friday we have lunch together, except those who have to commute to their work. In the evening and the weekends most of the families eat at home. Very often we have a special dinners in the middle of the week or on Sundays - to celebrate people’s birthday or to give some information to the community members. We have regular community weekends, where we get together to clean the kitchen, the community dining room or help in the gardens.
For the big decisions in the community we get together twice a year and plan our activities. We put the ideas on a big screen and everybody contributes in what they think we should or not do. In the end we ask “Does anybody have objections?” We take decisions only when the overwhelming majority agree. If only 60% think it is OK, we don’t go forward and wait for a better timing. We take more time to think about it.
From April through the end of October people can visit us for tours and open weekends and many come. Joining the community is possible, but it has to be a connection from the heart. We have a formal process from internship to permanent resident to welcoming a new resident.
25 years ago we had a period of negative press coverage. Some people in Quebec considered La Cité Ecologique a cult, simply because we raised our children differently. Many ecovillages throughout the world have had such problems at times. For us this had a huge impact: we lost all our businesses and went bankrupt. We had to rebuild credibility and trust from the broader society. That process took 12 years. We managed to keep our land, and - most importantly, the school, and started with new businesses again.
Now the situation is completely different. We are involved in different committees in the town of Ham-Nord, Canada. Today the community around us understands much better the importance of taking care of our planet. In celebration of our 30-years anniversary we received a very appreciative official letter from the municipality of Ham-Nord. Today, they value the awareness around renewable energies and organic food we have brought into the area.
In Colebrook, USA, we are also making a strong contribution through inspiring people about organic food and sustainability. And of course we create jobs into both our areas. In Colebrook we hire 39 people to work in our businesses.
Our original vision was to establish ten communities around the world. But after the second ecovillage in New Hampshire, we realized that we would need more good teams to be able to start ecovillages around the world. We decided instead to create connections with existing ecovillages around the world. This is why we decided to join GEN. Our children go on field trips to other communities to be able to create that “family feeling” around the world: a connection with other people who believe that it is important to take care of our planet and each other.