Champion for Rural Communities

Clark Banack’s path to a job Augustana Campus started nearly 25 years ago — when he was a student there

Madisen Gee - 21 March 2024

Clark Banack
Photo by John Ulan

Clark Banack is a busy person. In the last year he co-authored two books, Building Inclusive Communities in Rural Canada and Faith, Rights, and Choice: The Politics of Religious Schools in Canada. Banack has been around Augustana for a while, working as the interim director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities (ACSRC). Last year he was appointed as an assistant professor at Augustana — kind of a dream come true. We recently caught up with Banack, who shared some insights about what he’s been up to.

You’ve been teaching at Augustana since 2017, but your roots go back further. What does it mean for you to be an assistant professor here?

I grew up on a farm just outside of Camrose. I was a student at Augustana for a single year, in 2000. That year, taking classes from a couple of really great politics professors, I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life: be a politics professor. And in my dream scenario, I would be coming right back here to Augustana. 

It’s been a really long journey, I’ve gone to school on both coasts of Canada and worked for five years in Toronto. But to close the circle and finally be back here is hugely meaningful. I often think back to that year I spent here as a student and how impactful those professors were on me. 

As director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities, how do you view your role in terms of the community you serve?

I see the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities as serving rural communities and organizations. My job is to continue building relationships with different people, organizations and businesses across rural Alberta, finding ways to work on projects that have real value. 

Our projects address issues rural communities face, like economic development, social service delivery, environmental sustainability and enhancing inclusion in rural spaces. They’re usually topics or issues driven by rural people. We’re responding to their needs.

What kind of research do you personally focus on?

As a political scientist, I study the evolution of populism in Western Canada, especially Alberta. I’ve always been interested in how religion interacts with populism and also how this plays out in rural spaces. Alberta has had a populist political culture for more than 100 years, rooted in grassroots knowledge and virtue and the idea, “We shouldn’t just blindly follow elites.” The evolution of that populist political culture into what we find today is what really interests me.  

One key aspect of my interest is a rural ethnography project that involves gaining a deeper understanding of how people in rural communities make sense of their community, how they make sense of local, provincial and national politics, and how they see themselves intertwined in it. 

You’ve said that one of the most interesting parts of your job is the people you meet. 

Yes, this rural ethnography project has allowed me and my team to spend two weeks in a bunch of different rural communities across Canada. We show up at coffee shops, pubs and community events, and we talk to people or — more accurately — listen to them. It’s interesting to learn how much nuance there is in how people in rural communities think about politics, compared to what’s depicted in the media, where rural equals conservative, end of story. There’s a lot more going on.

What surprises some people about rural communities?

Rural people continue to be incredibly community oriented. They’re warm-hearted and creative in terms of helping their community do better so the community can thrive. When people write off rural communities as hopelessly conservative, I don’t think they appreciate the hardship that has existed in many rural communities over the last two, three, four decades. That lack of context may affect how they view rural people and rural politics. Large economic structural changes have occurred that have hurt rural communities in a number of different ways, economically and socially.

The world of academia seems removed from rural communities. What was it like to go into those communities and to build relationships? 

When I show up and say, “I’m a political scientist from the University of Alberta,” there’s some eye rolling and hesitation. No one’s outright rude, but a divide has emerged in terms of being suspicious of academics, for instance. It helps when I follow up by saying, “I’m from Augustana Campus,” and it helps that I am from rural Alberta. That can put people at ease. 

Your team recently hosted a conference. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

The Alberta Real Estate Foundation funded a broader research project on co-operatives and rural economic development that we undertook over the previous couple of years. The culmination of the research project was this conference meant to bring a bunch of people together. We sent the invitation across rural Alberta, and we had a really great turnout. Rural counsellors, rural economic developers, representatives from provincial and federal government, and other academics. It was a diverse group. 

The thing that surprised me most was how positively people responded to it. And not just the program — though we worked hard to make the program meaningful for the audience. Bringing all of these people from different backgrounds together for a couple of days and having meaningful, impactful discussions left people saying, “Wow, there might be something here in the co-op model for our rural community to try and create some new economic activity.”

What will future such conferences look like?

There’s a huge appetite for events that bring diverse sets of rural interests together, all focused on a topic of importance. We realized we’re going to have to do this again — it was that meaningful. It’s such a great way for the university to contribute to the public discourse and to the trajectory of rural communities in general. We don’t have firm plans when the next conference will be or what the topic is, but we just know that there’s an appetite and I think we have to respond to that.