Community Psychology Training in Canada in the New Millennium

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, Walsh-Bowers (1998) described in Canadian Psychology the marginalized status of community psychology in Canada. The purpose of this research was to investigate the current status of community psychology training in Canadian universities. The online calendars for undergraduate and graduate programs in departments of psychology in Canadian universities were reviewed for course offerings in community psychology. Subsequently, an e-mail survey of program directors was conducted to confirm and extend the findings of the online search. Results were compared with those of similar previous surveys conducted in 1980-1981 (Nelson & Tefft, 1982) and 1992-1994 (Walsh-Bowers, 1998). Findings show a small amount of growth in community psychology training at the undergraduate level since the last survey in 1992-1994, with more courses available in more Canadian psychology departments. There are also marginally more graduate courses in community psychology offered now than 15 years ago, but these are located in fewer psychology departments. Findings are discussed in the context of contemporary professional psychology and future directions for growing community psychology.

Keywords: Canadian psychology, community psychology, training

Community psychology occupies a rather unique place in the field of psychology. It adopts many of the methods, practises, and concerns of other areas of psychology, such as clinical and social psychology, and seeks greater institutional recognition and security within the psychology family. Nonetheless, community psychology was born of disaffection with mainstream experimental and clinical psychology, and while developing its own theory and research base, it has also advanced an explicit critique of mainstream psychology. Always marginal within the field of psychology, there has been ongoing concern for its ability to gain a secure foothold in the psychological establishment, particularly in terms of its ability to grow through the education and training of future generations of scholars and practitioners.

In the two previous decades, national surveys were conducted describing the status of education and training in Canadian universities (Nelson & Tefft, 1982; Walsh-Bowers, 1998). This article updates these surveys by examining the current status of education and training of community psychology in Canada. We begin by first defining community psychology and providing a brief overview of its history in Canada. Then, we examine community psychology's status in the context of Canadian psychology. Following a presentation of findings from our survey, we discuss their implications for further strengthening training in community psychology in Canada.

The article reflects multiple perspectives that include those of a midcareer academic (Aubry) trained in clinical and community psychology, an early career academic (Sylvestre) trained in applied social and community psychology, and a doctoral student (Ecker) specialising in community mental health and community psychology. All of us share an interest in developing training in community psychology in our home department and elsewhere across Canada.

Definition of Community Psychology

Although numerous definitions of community psychology exist, most touch on one or more of these three themes: values, research, and action or intervention (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005). Nelson and Prilleltensky (2005) have included these themes in their definition of community psychology as

the subdiscipline of psychology that is concerned with understanding people in the context of their communities, the prevention of problems of living, the celebration of human diversity, and the pursuit of social justice through social action, (p. 22)

In terms of values, community psychology involves research and intervention that are focused on improving the living conditions of marginalized people. In this vein, Nelson and Prilleltensky (2005) have advocated an explicit focus on community psychology values in the pursuit of liberation by addressing oppression and promoting well-being. In terms of research, community psychology distinguishes itself from other subdisciplines within psychology by focusing beyond the level of the individual, namely at the programmatic, organisational, community, or societal levels.

Community psychology is concerned with an understanding of the relationships among people, groups, communities, social contexts, and social institutions. A primary characteristic of community psychology is the adoption of an ecological analysis of disability, dysfunction, and disadvantage in terms of personenvironment fit, rather than focusing narrowly on individual-level deficits. Traditionally, community psychologists have been principally concerned with understanding how these relationships lead to challenges in living and the design and evaluation of interventions to alleviate these problems. Walsh-Bowers (1998) identifies active collaboration with citizens in the context of participatory research as a distinguishing feature of community psychology.

Brief History of Community Psychology in Canada

The formal roots of community psychology are traced to the Swampscott Conference held May 4-8, 1965, in Boston (Rickel, 1987). It has been noted, however, that the roots of community psychology can be traced further back in Canada (Nelson, Lavoie, & Mitchell, 2007; Walsh-Bowers, 1998). Nelson and his colleagues (2007) pointed to a nascent community psychology dating back to the focus on human development and mental health in the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto, under the direction of Chair Edward A. Bott. This focus persisted until after World War II, when the focus began to shift toward cognitive psychology (see also Walsh-Bowers, 1998).

Following from Swampscott, community psychology began to more clearly and widely emerge in Canada. The 1970s saw the launch of a master's program in community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, doctoral-level training in clinical-community psychology at the University of British Columbia, and the first PhD program in community psychology in Canada at the Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM; Nelson et al., 2007). The 1980s witnessed increased growth in the presence of community psychology in Canada with the launching of the interdisciplinary journal the Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, the formation of a community psychology section of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), and the increased presence of community psychology in undergraduate and graduate programs in a number of Canadian universities (Nelson et al., 2007; Nelson & Tefft, 1982; Walsh-Bowers, 1998).

In a historical analysis of the evolution of community psychology in Canada based on interviews with prominent Canadian and American community psychologists, Walsh-Bowers (1988) noted a lack of cooperation between francophone and anglophone community psychologists and the dominating effect of U.S. community psychology on the Canadian subdiscipline. Despite these challenges, Walsh-Bowers noted in his analysis a number of positive developments for community psychology, including the community section of CPA being one of the largest and the demand for and growth of graduate training in community psychology.

The past two decades have seen some entrenchment of graduate education, with freestanding PhD programs in community psychology now established at Wilfrid Laurier University, Université Laval, and UQAM. However, the presence of community psychology in other Canadian universities appears to be tenuous, often linked to the interests of one or two faculty members (Nelson et al, 2007; Walsh-Bowers, 1998). Nelson et al. (2007) estimated that the graduate programs in community psychology in Canadian universities have graduated more than 300 master' s-level students and more than 70 doctoral-level students.

Current Context of Canadian Psychology

In his 2004 Presidential Address to the Society for Community Research and Action, the Division of Community Psychology of the American Psychological Association, Paul Toro (2005) declared that community psychology was in its middle age, noting that it is in middle age when individuals begin to think about their long-term legacy. Certainly, a number of commentators have noted some challenges for academic community psychology. Alcalde and Walsh-Bowers (1996) have suggested that academic training in community psychology may not always be in line with its prevailing values. Walsh-Bowers (1998) pointed to the need to further develop Canadian networks of support to preserve and promote a Canadian community psychology identity. Prilleltensky and Nelson (2009) have raised concerns that community psychology has lost its "progressive edge" and has become a part of the "conservative mainstream" (p. 127) because of an increasing focus on individualist interventions rather than systems-level change (see also O'Neill, 2005).

Academic community psychology is witnessing the entry of a third generation of faculty members. The pioneering community psychologists are retiring or nearing retirement, as their successors enter the later years of their careers. At issue is whether this new third generation of community psychologists, trained by these older generations, will be able to find institutional opportunities to conduct research, teach, and train future generations. There are reasons for hope for community psychology in Canada. It responds to the concerns of many universities for relevance in local communities as well as to provincial and national policy issues. Community psychology research is also well in line with continued emphasis in universities and academic funders for interdisciplinarity, although this trend remains hampered somewhat by prevailing academic cultures and reward structures (Maton, Perkins, & Saegert, 2006; Yoshikawa, 2006).

Within psychology, however, community psychology remains marginal, rarely mentioned in introductory textbooks (Nairn, Ellard, Scialfa, & Miller, 2003) and excluded from many historical overviews of the field (Walsh-Bowers, 1998). Community psychology also appears out of step with the continued dominance of social- cognitive perspectives in social psychology, individual clinical practise, and the increased interest in neurosciences. There is still great emphasis on objective science and experimental research in mainstream psychology in contrast to the emphasis placed on value-driven research and a diversity of methods in community psychology (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2009). Finally, within mainstream psychology, nonacademic modes of knowledge dissemination and research funding continue to be discounted.

Objectives of the Current Study

To determine the current status of community psychology training in Canada, we replicated the methodology of the national survey conducted by Walsh-Bowers (1996) in 1992-1994. This study was a follow-up to another national survey of universitybased psychologists offering community psychology training and review of graduate catalogues of psychology departments located in Canadian universities conducted in 1980-1981 (Nelson & Tefft, 1982).

In the first study conducted in the early 1980s, Nelson and Tefft (1982) identified 20 universities that were offering graduate courses in community psychology. The courses were offered in the context of graduate programs in community psychology, clinical psychology, experimental psychology, and applied social psychology. Programs varied from offering one or two courses taught by one or two faculty to a sequence of courses offered by several faculty. Almost three quarters (73%) of the universities with courses in community psychology provided students with field placement opportunities. Nelson and Tefft concluded that graduate training in community psychology had grown substantially over a period of 10 years while noting that it rested on the shoulders in many universities on one or two faculty members.

In the second study conducted 10 years later in the early 1990s, Walsh-Bowers (1998) found 19 universities offering graduate courses in community psychology that included foci on primary prevention, community mental health, and program evaluation. Walsh-Bowers noted that seven universities had discontinued offering graduate training in community psychology, whereas six other universities had added the training since the 1982 survey. He also reported that 19 universities offered undergraduate courses in community psychology.

In discussing his findings, Walsh-Bowers (1998) reached a similar conclusion as Nelson and Tefft (1982), notably that with the exception of Université Laval, UQAM, and Wilfrid Laurier University, which had freestanding graduate programs in community psychology, training in community psychology relied heavily on the efforts of single professors in psychology departments. In this context, he expressed concern about the long-term survival of community psychology and called for a rapprochement between community psychology and professional psychology that would be mutually beneficial in becoming influential in the public mental health system.

Our survey replicates this previous line of research 15 years after the most recent survey (Walsh-Bowers, 1998). Similar to Walsh-Bowers (1998), the survey investigated Canadian universities offering undergraduate and graduate courses in community psychology. In addition, like Nelson and Tefft (1982), we also identified the universities that offered supervised fieldwork in community psychology.


A two-step process was used for identifying the course offerings in community psychology in Canadian universities. In the first step, we reviewed the 2008-2009 undergraduate and graduate catalogues of courses in departments of psychology in 62 Canadian universities. Each catalogue was retrieved online at each university's Web site and examined to identify offerings in community psychology courses. The titles and descriptions of courses were examined for this purpose. We considered a course as a community psychology course if its title and description fell in the areas of "community psychology," "community mental health," "community development," "program evaluation," "prevention," or "community interventions." In line with the previous surveys, supervised field placements or community practicums were not counted as academic courses but were identified and noted.

The second step of the methodology involved sending an electronic mail survey to the directors of undergraduate and graduate programs to confirm the information culled from their universities' Web site. The survey asked directors to confirm that the courses in community psychology that we had identified in their online course catalogues were offered to students. As well, they were asked to add any additional community psychology courses that were available to students but were not listed in their online course catalogue. Two weeks after the initial contact, follow-up e-mails were sent to those directors who had not responded. Of the 62 universities contacted, 42 completed the e-mail survey, representing a response rate of 72%.


Undergraduate Courses

As shown in Table 1, compared with the 1992-1994 survey, our results indicate growth in the availability of undergraduate community psychology courses in Canadian universities. In particular, there are more undergraduate courses being offered, with these available in more universities. In 1992-1994, there were 33 courses offered in 19 universities, representing 34% of the universities surveyed. In contrast, we found 38 courses offered in 25 universities, representing 40% of the universities surveyed. Six universities that offered undergraduate courses in community psychology in 1992-1994 no longer offered them in 2009. However, 12 universities that did not offer undergraduate courses in community psychology in 1992-1994 now do so in 2009. As presented in Table 2, more than two thirds (69%) of the undergraduate courses offered involve an introductory course to community psychology.

Graduate Courses

A comparison of our 2009 survey results with those of 1 9921994 showed a mixed picture in terms of the availability of graduate courses in community psychology in Canadian psychology departments. In particular, there were marginally more courses in community psychology available in 2009 relative to 1992-1994, but these were located at fewer universities. In particular, 49 graduate courses were offered at 1 7 universities in 2009 compared with 45 courses available at 19 universities in 1992-1994. The number of graduate courses offered in 2009 was lower than the total of 63 courses reported in the 1980-1981 survey. The number of different universities with graduate courses in community psychology was also at its highest in 1980-1981, with 20 universities having these courses. Nine universities that offered graduate courses in community psychology in 1992-1994 no longer offer these courses in 2009. These losses are offset by seven universities that did not offer graduate courses in 1992-1994 now offering them in 2009. Most of the graduate training in community psychology is being offered in universities located in Ontario and Quebec.

As shown in Table 2, more than one third (36%) of the graduate courses offered were general courses in community psychology, a similar proportion (38%) were program evaluation courses, and the remaining proportion (26%) of courses were specialised courses (e.g., prevention). Table 3 identifies the universities according to the combination of community psychology courses and supervised fieldwork that are offered. The majority of psychology departments with graduate courses in community psychology (81%) provided training opportunities in supervised fieldwork, with virtually all of these combining it with a general course in community psychology and a course in program evaluation.


Given our survey findings, community psychology appears to remain a niche specialty in Canadian psychology that has a small presence in a minority of undergraduate and graduate programs with the exception of three universities that have graduate programs, notably Université Laval, UQAM, and Wilfrid Laurier University. Overall, there has been a small amount of growth in community psychology training at the undergraduate level since the last survey in 1992-1994, with more courses available in more Canadian psychology departments. There are slightly more graduate courses in community psychology offered now than 15 years ago, but these are located in fewer psychology departments. It is noteworthy that community psychology training is not available at Dalhousie University, McGiIl University, University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia, the largest and most wellknown Canadian universities.

The increased presence of community psychology courses at the undergraduate level is an important development as it exposes students to the area at an early stage of their academic career and can be expected to orient some of them toward pursuing graduate studies in community psychology. Despite this growth, only 40% of Canadian psychology departments offer courses in the area. Moreover, "community psychology" is not a core concept covered in introductory psychology courses (Nairn et al., 2003). Our experience as instructors of upper undergraduate and graduate courses is that a large number of students have no prior familiarity with community psychology. Ultimately, an increased presence in undergraduate programs in psychology in Canadian universities is still needed for it to be visible and considered part of core subject matter in psychology.

Given that studies in psychology at the undergraduate level can lead to careers in health and social services, the addition of an undergraduate course in community psychology focusing on psychological theories and practise that address social problems makes sense. Moreover, "community service learning" has become increasingly available in undergraduate programs in Canadian universities over the past several years (Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning, 2009). Community service learning is an educational approach that integrates volunteer service activities and experiences with community organisations into university and college courses. With the focus of community psychology on theories, research, and interventions related to strengthening communities and assisting vulnerable populations (Nelson & Prilletensky, 2005), undergraduate courses in the area provide a natural fit for community service learning.

As expected, the freestanding graduate programs in community psychology at Université Laval, UQAM, and Wilfrid Laurier University offer the largest number of graduate courses. In addition Université Laval and Wilfrid Laurier University, both of which launched a doctorate program in 2003, have added professors specialising in community psychology (Nelson et al., 2007). In contrast to these universities with freestanding programs, other psychology departments in Canadian universities offer only a small number of graduate courses in community psychology. These are available as courses in clinical psychology programs (i.e., Lakehead, Manitoba, Montréal, Ottawa, Victoria, York) and in applied social psychology programs (i.e., Guelph, Saskatchewan, Windsor). In these departments, these courses are taught often by one faculty member who has a background in the area. The courses are at risk of being discontinued if these professors leave the university or retire. Unfortunately, this situation has occurred at Acadia, Brock, and Sherbrooke, resulting in graduate courses in community psychology no longer being offered (Nelson et al., 2007).

The need for succession planning to occur in psychology departments with clinical and applied social psychology programs is critical for community psychology to survive in Canada. This is particularly important as the first generation of community psychologists in Canada retire or are on the verge of retiring. Notwithstanding that there are many job opportunities for PhD-level community psychologists in government, nongovernmental organisations, and the private sector, it will be important that some of the graduates from the doctoral programs at Wilfrid Laurier University, UQAM, and Université Laval take up academic positions in Canadian psychology departments. However, given the traditional experimental psychology practised in Canadian university departments, there has been a dearth of academic job opportunities for graduates of community psychology programs; moreover, clinical psychology programs recruit graduates who can qualify for registration with provincial regulatory bodies, which typically require a doctorate or substantial training in clinical psychology.

The development of more doctoral-level programs in community psychology would help grow this area of psychology so that undergraduate and graduate courses are offered in more than 40% of Canadian universities. The support of provincial governments in expanding graduate studies at Canadian universities such as was done recently in Ontario provides an opportunity for the development of new specialities within existing graduate programs (Council of Ontario Universities, 2008).

An immediate threat to a small area such as community psychology is the current fiscal situation of Canadian universities as they navigate the economic recession. Projected consequences include hiring freezes and increased reliance on part-time and sessional staff (Usher & Dunn, 2009). This situation will mean that retiring professors who contributed community psychology training in their departments may not be replaced. As well, courses in community psychology face the prospect of being expendable for economic reasons, particularly if they are not core requirements of undergraduate or graduate programs in psychology.

A limitation of our data is that we were unable to identify the characteristics of professors who teach community psychology in Canadian universities. In describing their sample, Nelson and Tefft (1982) noted that only two of 27 respondents who taught community psychology were women. It is unclear to what extent this situation has changed since this first survey as we did not ask about the demographic characteristics of who was teaching the community psychology courses. Given the importance that community psychology places on diversity, the extent that teachers in the area represent women, First Nations, and visible minorities is an important issue for future research to examine.

Another issue worth examining in future research on community psychology training in Canadian universities is the extent that interdisciplinary training is being fostered in community psychology programs. Although the adoption of an interdisciplinary perspective by community psychology has been advocated throughout its history (Levine, Perkins, & Perkins, 2004), it is unclear the extent to which interdisciplinarity is being encouraged in graduate training programs in community psychology. In a special issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology on interdisciplinary research in community psychology, Maton et al. (2006) assessed the progress made in integrating indisciplinarity in community psychology as being modest at best and less than some other areas of psychology (e.g., biological, cognitive, and health). They noted the importance of graduate training programs providing opportunities for students to be exposed to other disciplines through courses and research and action projects.

Our survey found that more than three quarters (8 1 %) of the psychology departments that offered graduate courses in community psychology also made available to students supervised fieldwork with community groups and organisations, schools, and the government. This proportion of psychology departments with graduate courses offering supervised fieldwork exceeds the proportion of departments found in the 1980-1981 survey (73%; Nelson & Tefft, 1982). They reflect a strength of community psychology training available in Canadian universities. The roles assumed by community psychologists are varied and can include those of program developer, program manager, program evaluator, health promoter, community developer, policy developer, social advocate, and researcher (Feis, Mavis, Weth, & Davidson, 1990; Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005; Sandler & Keller, 1984; Théroux & Tefft, 1982). Given the complexity of these roles, it is vital that students receive field training as part of their graduate studies.

In discussing future directions for community psychology, Walsh-Bowers (1998) suggested the need for a rapprochement between "professional psychology" and community psychology, two relatively divergent perspectives. His argument was founded on the changing landscape faced by professional psychology in Canada, which included greater participation in the private sector and lesser participation in the public sector, the emergence of program management models replacing discipline-specific departments in public institutions, and the shift to short-term clinical services in public mental health services. In this context, Walsh-Bowers argued for an integrative model that includes both clinical psychology and community psychology.

There is some evidence that clinical psychology is moving in this direction. The most recent accreditation standards for clinical psychology programs require training programs to provide training that produces competencies in the areas of consultation at the organisational level and program development and evaluation (CPA, 2002). Despite these standards, only a small number of clinical psychology programs (Manitoba, Ottawa, Saskatchewan, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Victoria, Windsor) were identified in our survey as offering community psychology courses and field placements that provide opportunities for developing these competencies. In the United States, this type of hybrid training is also available in some programs (Meissen & Slavich, 1997). The expansion of clinical training to include the development of competencies to work with programs and organisations to meet CPA accreditation standards represents an important growth opportunity for community psychology.

The emergence of professionally recognised master' s-level clinicians by regulatory bodies across North America is another factor that challenges the traditional narrow role of clinical psychologists as clinicians. In this context, some have argued that die role of clinical psychologists needs to be expanded beyond individual treatment into such areas as program development and evaluation, organisational consultation, social policy analysis and research, and population health (Humphreys, 1996; Meissen & Slavich, 1997). Related to this development is the interest in clinical psychology to expand the scope of interventions to include primary prevention (Holden & Black, 1999; Hunsley & Lee, 2006; Weinstein, 2006). Prevention has been a cornerstone of community psychology since its inception 40 years ago (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005).

After more than 40 years since the official birth of community psychology in North America, it remains a resilient but small force in Canadian psychology. The fact that is has survived in Canadian psychology departments with only some small erosion during a conservative political period that has lasted more than two decades is a testament to its durability. The social problems faced by contemporary Canadian society are similar and of the same magnitude and complexity as those that prompted the creation of a community psychology perspective in the 1960s. These include poverty, homelessness, the breakdown of families placing children and youth at risk, the plight of aboriginal populations, and the social and economic exclusion of new Canadians. All of these problems call for a response from psychology. The contribution of community psychology is to assist the discipline to reach higher and adopt a more systemic perspective in conceptualizing research and interventions (O'Neill, 2005). For this reason, we believe that community psychology training will continue to have a presence in Canadian psychology for the foreseeable future.


Il a dix ans, Walsh-Bowers (1998) décrit dans la psychologie canathenne le statut marginalisé de la psychologie communautaire au Canada. Le but de cette recherche est d'évaluer l'état actuel de formation en psychologie communautaire dans les universités canathennes. Les annuaires de premier cycle et des programmes d'études supérieures sur les sites web des départements de psychologie canathennes ont été examinés pour déterminer les cours offerts en psychologie communautaire. Par la suite, une enquête par courrier électronique des directeurs de programmes a été menée pour confirmer et étendre les conclusions de la recherche en ligne. Les résultats sont comparés à ceux des enquêtes antérieures réalisées en 1980-81 (Nelson & Tefft, 1982) et en 1992-94 (WalshBowers, 1998). Les résultats démontrent un léger accroissement de la formation au niveau de premier cycle depuis la dernière enquête en 1992-94 avec plus de cours disponibles dans plus de départements de psychologie canathenne. Il existe également un peu plus de cours de deuxième cycle en psychologie communautaire offert aujourd'hui comparativement à 1992-94, mais ceux-ci sont situés dans moins de départements de psychologie. Les résultats sont examinés dans le contexte de la psychologie professionnelle contemporaine. Des directions ultérieures pour accroître la psychologie communautaire sont suggérées.

Mots-clés : psychologie au Canada, psychologie et communauté, formation



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Received April 15, 2009

Revision received August 18, 2009

Accepted August 18, 2009

[Author Affiliation]

Tim Aubry, John Sylvestre, and John Ecker

University of Ottawa

[Author Affiliation]

Tim Aubry, John Sylvestre, and John Ecker, School of Psychology and Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services, University of Ottawa.

The findings in the article were presented at the June 2009 Biennial Conference of the Society for Community Research and Action. We are grateful to Lisa Peeke and Sarah Bimie for their research assistance with the collection of the data. We thank Geoff Nelson and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of the article.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Tim Aubry, Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services, University of Ottawa, 34 Stewart Street, Ottawa, Ontario, KlC 3A9. E-mail:


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