Living Heritage: Making Sense of Our Past in the Present

By: Busayo Osobade December, 2019

Defining heritage could be a challenging task, and it becomes even more challenging when “living” is added to it. Over the years, the use of “Living Heritage” has become increasingly popular in discussions, however this term is sometimes used interchangeably with Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which may be confusing. To better understand these terms, and how heritage is essential for contemporary and future well-being, Engage writer, Busayo Osobade, spoke to Kristin Catherwood.

Catherwood is a folklorist, and Heritage Saskatchewan’s Director of Living Heritage. She facilitates workshops and training in the province to help communities discover, interpret, and celebrate their living heritage. She has coordinated living heritage projects across the province and is currently working with the community of Cumberland House on a documentation project.

Q: What is Living Heritage?

A:   Living Heritage is a term which Heritage Saskatchewan uses to acknowledge that our values, beliefs and ways of living shape our identity, belonging and place – connecting our past, present and future. It defines our sense of identity as individuals and our relationships with others, shaping our communities and quality of life in the process. Therefore, it is deeply connected to our wellbeing and our quality of life, and plays an important role in nurturing community resilience. This was demonstrated through our work producing the Saskatchewan Index of Wellbeing, a resource that expands our understanding of how well our communities and citizens are faring beyond the economic measures of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We were thrilled to recently win the Governor’s Award from the National Trust for Canada on this groundbreaking project.

Q: What is Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)?

A:  UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) defines Intangible Culture Heritage (ICH) as follows:  The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups, and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. ICH is transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. 

Communities may use a different language than we do to describe ICH or living heritage, and so it’s our job to listen to what they are concerned about and find ways to assist them. A community may contact us saying they want to preserve their community’s stories, or they are worried about losing some traditional knowledge, or that they have a building they want to save, and part of that process is documenting the ICH connected to that building, for example.

Q: How can communities safeguard their ICH, especially when many societies today seek to adapt to global change?

A: It is an ongoing challenge to safeguard ICH in a rapidly evolving, globalized, and technologically driven world. This is why UNESCO saw the need to create the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. There are tools within that document to help in this work, including creating inventories of ICH. Since Canada has not signed this Convention, some provinces have decided to implement the UNESCO recommendations as much as possible. Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have actually legislated this. In Saskatchewan, this work is being undertaken by the non-profit sector, led by Heritage Saskatchewan. More specifically, I employ the four goals of Safeguarding ICH in my work, which are documentation, recognition and celebration, transmission, and community development (including economic development).

Though we are all part of a global world, we live locally. Individuals, families and communities who are interested in safeguarding their cultural traditions will find ways to make that happen, and Heritage Saskatchewan offers resource, knowledge, and support to help them achieve their goals.

Q: How does Heritage Saskatchewan provide communities with these resources, knowledge, and support?

A: Heritage Saskatchewan advocates for ICH at a provincial and national level, and we offer resources for communities that are interested in safeguarding their heritage. In 2018, we added the category of Intangible Cultural Heritage projects to our Lieutenant Governor Heritage Awards to recognize the great work that communities, organizations, and individuals are doing to safeguard ICH around the province. We collaborate with organizations within and outside the heritage community to reach as many networks across the province as possible.  Thus, we can connect communities to the specific resources they need to help them in their efforts to safeguard ICH and build resilient communities. We respond to communities based on their unique contexts and work with them to develop the project, process, or program that they are looking for. This often starts with me visiting the community to offer a living heritage workshop to help them identify their unique cultural heritage assets. After that initial community visit, we maintain an ongoing relationship with the community. Sometimes that first workshop is enough to jumpstart their work. Other times, our connection leads to a formal collaboration in the form of a living heritage project.

Q: Since Living Heritage involves making our past relevant, please share some tips on how youth can be included and engaged?

A: We must give youth the opportunity and the platform to share what is important to them, to be creative, and to have their perspectives valued. We need to ask them what they care about, ask them what makes them feel connected to their place, the people who live there, and their cultural heritage. Specifically, we need to provide youth with opportunities to express their creativity and share their worldviews. One really valuable and useful way to do this is to connect them with tradition bearers, and to give the youth the opportunity to actively lead that process. For example, if a community plans to do a documentation project on some element of its cultural heritage, inviting youth to do the interviews and have a hand or lead the process of documentation can be a very effective tool to engage youth with their community.

Q: How can communities connect to Heritage Saskatchewan’s resources and workshops?

A: Heritage Saskatchewan’s community engagement work is adaptive and responsive to individual community and organization needs. Email or call the office at (306) 780-9191, or visit our website at