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Connecting with the community enriched Ivan Emke's 25-year stay in Corner Brook

After 25 years, Ivan Emke is getting set to say farewell to Corner Brook. Emke took time to pose for this photo while enjoying the weekend in Norris Point.
After 25 years, Ivan Emke is getting set to say farewell to Corner Brook. Emke took time to pose for this photo while enjoying the weekend in Norris Point. - Contributed

When Ivan Emke came to Corner Brook in 1993 it was supposed to be for one year.

Now 25 years later he’s preparing to say farewell — but not forever — to the city and the friends he’s made here.

Emke and his wife, Joyce Reesor, are heading to Stouffville, Ont. to take up residence in the home that had belonged to Reesor’s grandmother. Emke is originally from the Owen Sound area of Ontario.

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He currently holds the title of honorary research professor at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“It was kind of an adventure,” Emke said of the decision to come to Corner Brook a quarter of a century ago.

He came to teach sociology and anthropology at Grenfell, which then was known as Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.

After arriving he started to really explore the communities and the landscape and found a freedom at Grenfell to do various kinds of research.

After the year the job at Grenfell changed from contract to tenure and Emke stayed.

“It was really the place and the people that kept us there.” 

Over the years he filled many a role at Grenfell — associate vice-president for research, head of internationalization, head of social science and vice-president of the campus — and served on too many committees to name.

He said he feels fortunate to have had all those roles.

“But it makes life a bit more complicated when you’re in different positions, as well. You see things from different perspectives. 

“You can see the glorious bits and the seamy underbelly.”

Emke has been there as Grenfell went through some changes — good and bad — and challenging times, from expansion, seeking autonomy, assuming university status, the granting of degrees and a change in structure.

“The value of being at a place for a quarter of a century is that you don’t get tossed around by the sort of the flavour of the moment as much, because you recognize the long view a little bit more.”

He said Memorial University is no different from other university’s in Canada as all are under the same pressures in terms of economics, accountability and programming.

It is a bit more complicated though, because it is a multi-campus.

Grenfell is also complicated by “an endearing kind of distrust” of the capital city, he said.

But that’s also happened in Iceland and other countries.

“There’s a real luxury in being able to blame all of your sorrows on someone else.”

Over the years he’s heard a lot of “St. John’s this, St. John’s that.”

“When we did have choices that we made on our own it makes it harder for us to blame ourselves,” he said.

He encourages those at the helm to not worry so much about what’s going on in St. John’s and focus on the relationship between Grenfell and the City of Corner Brook and the region.

“The stronger we have a foothold within that region then when we get in trouble people write letters to the editor who are not part of the university, rather than who are part of the university.

“That would be a victory for us,” he said.

“And so, I’ve always felt that our future is really in our hands, but it doesn’t involve having some sort of fight that tears us all apart with the capital city.

“If you’re the best you can possibly be and everybody in your region understands the central value of who you are, there’s no chance that you’re going to disappear or be disadvantaged.”

As he prepares to move Emke sometimes has flashes of the people he’s worked with over the 25 years.

“Some of them are no longer with us and I remember the things that we were involved in and the ways in which all of them at their best moved toward giving students a good experience.”

Outside of Grenfell Emke got involved in the community, serving on the boards of Transition House and the AIDS Committee of Western Newfoundland. He also got involved in the local music scene and in community radio.

As a member of the Corner Brook Refugee Support Group he’s helped Syrian families start new lives in the city.

All of it “enriched everything,” were ways to get involved and were things he needed to do.

“It was really a benefit because it created not just knowing people, but it meant you were engaged in making this place a slightly different place or helping it to be a slightly different place.”

Of the people who have come to work at the university, hospital or wherever, who never really enjoyed it, he said it’s because they were never really connected in the community outside their work life.

“You don’t have the links then, and you don’t have the rich connections.”

He finds it embarrassing, but humbling, to hear it said they he’s had an influence on the community.

“Assuming it’s positive,” he said with a laugh.

He said it’s a positive thing when you live somewhere for 25 years, especially in a smaller community where being from somewhere else matters, and people say there is some value from you being there for 25 years.

Ivan Emke will continue to be connected to Newfoundland

Ivan Emke may be moving on from Corner Brook and Newfoundland but he’ll continue to be connected through the airwaves

Emke has a music show “Roots & Branches & Beyond” that’s on a number of community radio stations including Bay of Islands Radio.

He has about four weeks of shows taped in advance of his move to Stouffville, Ontario and plans to continue the show out there.

The honorary research professor at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador got quite involved in agriculture the last few years.

Lately he’s been interviewing farmers and food producers for a new podcast,

“Fit to Eat: The Newfoundland and Labrador Farm and Food Show.”

The show will be a weekly series of 30-minute podcasts that will be aired on a number of community radio stations and available on the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture and Food First NL websites.

“It’s kind of telling stories of people who grow food, people who have an interest in food,” said Emke.

“Because the thing that we lack here around growing food is the culture of agriculture.”

Emke said that includes the knowledge from young people, 4H clubs, the network of organizations that look after agriculture, the people who sell the tractors and fix the tractors.

He said Newfoundland is at a disadvantage because of its focus on its marine roots and fishing.

But agriculture played an important role in the lives of the people with backyard gardens all over the place.

“The only thing that kept them alive was self-provisioning. The fishery certainly didn’t pay for it.”

He said when talking about food security it has to be realized that self-provision, the thing people do in their backyards or when they hunt a moose or fish, is all a part of increased food security.

And don’t even get him talking about the recreational fishery.

“It’s not a recreational fishery for heaven sakes, it’s a food fishery. And to call it a recreational fishery is to cheapen it.”

Back to food security, he said everyone has a role.

“If I build a bigger garden I’m doing as much for our society that I can do as an urban home owner.

“And we need to find ways to recognize that and to appreciate that, to value that because we aren’t going to get better food security just by having commercial farms. That’s not going to happen in Newfoundland and Labrador. It has to be everybody doing a bit more.”

The show will be all Newfoundland based and Emke said he’s working on some things that will help to bring him back to the province.

He’ll also be interviewing farmers in Iceland this fall. He said there is a lot of discussion about the connection between the fishery in Iceland and Newfoundland and the same thing can be said about farming.

So, while he may tackle things on the outside, it’ll always be referring back to Newfoundland.

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