Tag Archives: community

The Sustainability Picture

14 Oct

After cycling all across the country, what did we find out about sustainability in Canada?

We spoke with over 50 people across the 10 provinces. Our encounters were amazingly varied, and each story was unique. We were inspired! Many Canadians we met are acting to move towards sustainability. Some of them don’t necessarily associate their actions with sustainability; others are aware of the way their actions fit into the sustainability picture. It is amazing that, even without seeking out “sustainable people,” we came across so many relevant initiatives.

Now, we can step back and look at the big picture, looking for patterns in the stories we collected and making some generalizations about the Canadian perspective on sustainability. Here’s what we found.

Consumerism and Waste

Q: What did one garbage can say to the other?
A: “I got totally trashed last night!”

Many Canadians are concerned about the vicious cycle of consumerism: work more, buy more, want more things, repeat. But once people are aware of it, they are better equipped to break free. Randy from Newfoundland sees this happen to people who go to work in the oil sands. Although he has worked in Fort Mac himself, he knows his limits: he won’t buy a skidoo or a big truck if he doesn’t need one!

There’s also concern about another side of consumerism: excessive production is detrimental to the environment and creates a lot of waste. Emily from Saskatchewan was inspired to minimize her own consumption: she re-uses things by shopping at thrift stores and garage sales. At the Nelson Food Co-op in British Columbia, a documentary about waste inspired the members to vote for banning plastic bags in the store. That’s 10 000 members reusing their bags every time they shop! Charlie from Nova Scotia used all reusable dishes and cutlery when she hosted an event for 200 people to reduce waste from single-use eating utensils.

Local Economy and Community

Lots of people had concerns about money draining from smaller communities and businesses to large corporations. Co-operatives offer one solution: they follow a business model that can be accountable to the communities they serve. In Grand Forks, British Columbia, a food co-op has re-started, providing an alternative to shopping at the chain stores in town. By connecting the residents with the local farmers and making the price fair to both farmer and customer, the co-op is improving the local economy. We found many other, similar food co-ops as well. For example, the Penokean Hills Farms co-op in Ontario is helping cattle farmers to butcher and sell their meat locally.

In some places, people were concerned about a lack of jobs in their area. The Bear Claw First Nations casino and hotel in Saskatchewan is a striking example of a community creating jobs for itself. The White Bear First Nations fought hard to make the resort a reality. Now it employs a large part of the community. The business is run by community members whose mandate is to keep the community in mind, providing income, job training, and funding for community projects. We also encountered a radically different solution to the jobs issue: people in Hutterite colonies live communally. Everyone helps out, and everyone gets what they need.

Self-sufficiency

Many Canadians are growing their own food. We’re not talking herb gardens: people manage to feed themselves, at least for most of the season. The Thiessens from Saskatchewan grow their own vegetables and only rarely need to buy food. Justin in Ontario grows vegetables and raises chickens on his permaculture farm. Gabriel in Quebec raised his own goat. Marianne from Prince Edward Island grows enough vegetables for 3 households and shares her harvest with her neighbours. Rose in Nova Scotia is fattening up two pigs for the winter. Kevin in Nova Scotia eats the mackerel he catches from his kayak and the organic vegetables he trades for his excess mackerel. If you’re lucky like Bridget in Newfoundland, and you have friends who are hunters, then you are guaranteed to have moose meat feasts for a while.

A significant number of people strive to be self-sufficient with their electricity and energy needs. This is especially true in Ontario, where we saw solar panels everywhere. Thanks to Ontario’s government subsidies and the FIT program, people see solar panels as an investment and even a source of income. Pat and Sherri, for example, have enough solar panels to supply them with 110% of their annual electricity needs.

Several people we met were self-sufficient for their water needs. At the permaculture farm in Ontario, a pump connected to a solar panel channeled water from Lake Huron to the house and garden. Dany and Maite in Quebec draw water from a well for household use, and obtain their drinking water from a nearby spring.

Health

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: It can go wherever it @#*&ing wants, it’s a free-range chicken!

In Calgary, Alberta, Maria was buying some free-run eggs at the grocery store and the guy behind her in line commented to the cashier about how ridiculous the term sounds in French. They had a full 15-minute discussion about it in franglais. But many people we met were much more interested to know how their food was produced and where it came from.

A lot of people care about staying healthy, and one way they can improve their health is by eating better. Fresh, organic fruit and vegetables are important. Equally important is dairy, fish and meat produced in a healthy environment where animals are fed quality feed without antibiotics or growth hormones. Whether through local food co-ops and farmers’ markets or by growing their own food, many people we met found ways to obtain healthier food.

Several times the topic of vegetarian vs. meat diet came up – which is healthier? Jesse from Quebec became mostly vegetarian after moving to the city from his parents’ organic cattle farm. Fresh organic meat was in abundance when he was growing up but that was not so much the case once he moved to the city. On the other hand, Dwight who used to be vegan started eating local meat and dairy when he moved to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. When choosing between highly processed, genetically-modified soy products from overseas and fresh organic meat from across the street, Dwight prefers the meat.

Some people do encounter challenges with trying to eat healthy food. Everyone seemed to know the story of a couple in Quebec that transformed their front yard into a beautiful vegetable garden, but due to a ridiculous bylaw they were told by the municipality to tear down the garden or face a severe fine. A campaign was launched to save the garden and recent news celebrate their victory! Though it was an intense struggle for the couple, the campaign was all over the news and raised a lot of awareness, which brings us to our final category.

Education and Awareness

Spreading the message about living more sustainably can be a challenge. In some cases, information is not readily available: in New Brunswick, where the Irving family has a monopoly on the forestry and newspaper businesses, news is often biased. Several media co-ops have started up, providing people with a more objective and complete story.

Even when the information is there, it is not always easy to get people to listen. As Jesse from Quebec told us, those who work in inherently unsustainable professions, like mining and oil extraction, avoid the topic because they don’t want to be blamed or feel like they’re doing something wrong. Others, suggests Dany from Quebec, are just resistant to change and don’t dare to do something different. Aaron in Manitoba says that some people are just lazy.

At the same time, we did find several educational initiatives on our way, where dedicated people are taking on these challenges. Aaron in Manitoba started a sustainable campus group at the University of Manitoba to network and share knowledge among students. The permaculture farm on Manitoulin Island in Ontario holds permaculture design courses. Pat in Ontario teaches sustainable building design at Fleming College. Sustainable Antigonish in Nova Scotia invites guest speakers and sets up movie nights to raise awareness and share knowledge.

We also met parents who are passing on knowledge and values to their children. Charlie in Nova Scotia is teaching her kids about growing vegetables. Dany and Maite in Quebec are teaching their son Mateo about re-using by making crafts out of cereal boxes.

So many good things are happening all over Canada. Our project is not a scientific paper: we are not claiming to have gathered an unbiased statistical sample showing the current trends. But every story described and every person encountered is real. We hope that the stories we shared have informed and inspired our readers as much as they inspired us.

Setting Sail for Nova Scotia

28 Aug

Avast ye, mateys! Lower the sails and drop the anchor. We approach a new land.

Aye aye, captain! Though we did not land in the port city of Halifax, we did spend a few days there. Anya’s friend Hamdi showed us the multitudinous ice cream and drinking establishments. We also went for a stroll along the vibrant waterfront boardwalk.

We even explored the Halifax harbour on a 30-foot sailboat, circling around Georges Island. The island has a fort and many, many snakes. We are told that an underground tunnel connects the island’s fort to the Citadel, which towers over Halifax.

It was time to replace our chains again, and we stopped by the Bike Pedaler bike shop in Dartmouth. The shop is involved in promoting cycling culture. For example, they have free bike parking for anyone working in downtown Dartmouth.

The shop owner, Marc, told us about an unfortunate new law that has aggravated cyclist-driver relations: drivers must give cyclists 1m distance when passing. The law is not enforced and cannot be regulated: even evidence like helmet camera footage cannot be used in court, although some have tried it. With the passing of the law, drivers feel like they’ve had some privileges taken away from them and now drive more aggressively, giving cyclists even less space when passing them and generally being unfriendly.

We took the scenic route out of Halifax, passing through the Salt Marsh and Shearwater Flyer trails. The trails are part of the Trans Canada Trail and are built on the old railbed. Birds love the salt marsh and you can see them feeding on small aquatic life. It’s also neat to see the tides rush through the narrow spots and into the shallow warm pools of the salt marsh.

In Antigonish we stayed with the Ten Brinkes: Charlie, Ronny, and the kids. They’re actually a family of 5, it’s just part of their last name! Charlie is really energetic and inspiring lady who’s involved in everything. Between working at the university, getting the kids to hockey practice and such, cooking for the family, and acting with a dinner theatre troupe, she also does a tonne of sustainability stuff.

The Ten Brinkes live just outside town, on a big beautiful piece of land. It hasn’t always been this nice: they built the house themselves and transformed the property from a rocky, rather barren field to a wooded area and garden. Charlie loves the trees and made a network of hiking trails for the kids. The wild critters love the trees too, and at one point Charlie had her yard certified with the Backyard Habitat Program. At the time, she ran a daycare where the kids could play around and connect with nature. Her two boys, Jesse and Jamie, have a fort in the trees. Charlie helped them build it using recycled materials.

Charlie also grows herbs and vegetables in her yard, to avoid the rising food prices. Feeding three kids is not cheap, especially if you want to give them fresh, organic vegetables. She also involves the kids in gardening. The two boys each have their own square of vegetable garden. At first, it was just a small patch, but this year they asked for a bigger area and now have a considerable garden plot each. Charlie says the boys feel very proud when the family eats vegetables from their garden plots.

In Antigonish there is a small but dedicated group of people who organize various talks and events to promote sustainabiity. The group is great for exchanging ideas, but as Charlie tells us, they have trouble reaching out to the rest of the community and getting them to see the importance of moving towards a sustainable lifestyle. Case in point: Charlie and Ronny recently hosted a 200-person picnic and Charlie decided she wouldn’t use any single-use dishes.

Yes, read that sentence again. 200 people. No plastic cups, plates, or anything. Let it sink in.

Anyway, Charlie said that people were so used to disposable dishes and so unaware of what she was trying to do that some of them threw her dishes in the garbage. She had to fish through the garbage at the end of the event to get her dishes back. These are the challenges she and the Antigonish sustainability crowd is up against.

With her kids, of course, it’s a different story: day in and day out, Charlie teaches them about recycling and not wasting water or electricity. Some days the kids still throw the compost in the garbage or leave the lights on in the entire house. But it’s not about getting it right each time, it’s about creating consciousness/awareness and instilling values. Charlie hopes to make the kids think about sustainability because she believes it’s important to their generation.

Raccoon Stew

22 Jul

Manitoulin, we are told, has been called the Saltspring Island of Ontario: it’s inhabited by artists and other interesting characters. We stayed with people whose goal is to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. They are growing their own food and getting their own energy from solar panels. Their methods are based on the permaculture system.

Our host and permaculture extraordinaire, Justin, explains that the first thing he needed to figure out was a water source for growing the food. He set up a solar powered pump to get water from the closest water source – Lake Huron.

Not too long ago, the perma-farm went completely off-grid. Justin describes cutting off the electricity as a liberating and powerful experience. The house has a composting loo, collects rainwater, and is powered by rooftop solar.

The perma-farm also has, or rather had, a lot of chickens. Recently, a raccoon mauled some 30 chickens. Retribution was in order. The clever furry guy was trapped and shot, but no part of him was wasted: the meat was cooked, the fat was separated and is to be made into soap – a Christmas present for mom, and the skin is being cured and will probably go towards some sort of fashion item. As for us, we did not pass up the unique opportunity and tasted the surprisingly delicious ‘coon meat.

 

Not all is lost. The remaining specimens are very athletic. One could say that natural selection has occurred.

The farm members are also very active in the community and hold educational programs on permaculture. They hold courses and workshops to pass along their skills and knowledge to others.

It’s a Hutterite Life

2 Jul

When we chose to set up camp in St. Claude, we had no idea what was in store for us. We rolled into town and were just trying to find the campground on the giant map, when a man wearing dress shoes and also riding a bicycle caught up with us. It turned out that he wanted to offer us a place to stay for the night! That’s how we met Robert and Josiane from St. Claude, and through them we met a lot of other amazing people.

Robert is a high school teacher. In the past decade or so, he has been teaching over an interactive television system to students from several Hutterite colonies. There are actually several hundreds of such colonies in Canada and we probably passed some, but as Robert wisely says, if you aren’t looking for it you won’t see it. Who are the Hutterites? We were able to see for ourselves.

Hutterites live communally: they share work and money, and they eat and pray together. The colony sustains its members spiritually and physically. In addition, Hutterites often help surrounding communities: for example, some are trained in first aid and emergency response, and will often be the first ones on a scene of emergency. It was really interesting to see the benefits and challenges of this radically different way of life.

Robert took us to two different colonies, where we saw the eating area, kitchen, chapel, school, some new homes under constuction, and a car repair shop. A common misconception about the Hutterites is that they shun new technologies. On the contrary: they have pretty much the latest and greatest in farming machinery, computers, industrial-grade ovens and breadmakers, fridges, washing machines… everything they need. Some members are talented carpenters, electricians, or general do-it-yourselfers, and everything is done in-house. And we mean everything: from repairing electrical appliances to building entire houses, complete with cabinets, electricity, and plumbing — all top notch quality. (Anya had never seen such a clean car repair workshop in her life! And working in construction she has seen more than a few.)

Hutterites have a lot of opportunities for learning various skills and trades, and sampling a wide variety of jobs. Rotating responsibilities and sharing the work assignments is encouraged. In the colonies we visited, everyone can complete high school, and beyond that there are opportunities for becoming certified in various trades. Sometimes, they will send a member of the colony to earn a university degree. As for work, they get their first small jobs at 15 (adulthood) and can move around between working in the field, building constuction, helping in the machine shop, or at the school. They can really find the work that fits, and if they prove themselves to be trustworthy, can take on greater responsibilities.

While no one on a Hutterite colony has any personal funds, there is money for exchanging goods with the outside world. Hutterites are shrewd businessmen: once the needs of the colony have been met, all surplus goods can be sold. One can often see them selling produce at farmers’ markets. Each colony may specialize in its own area. Some colonies have a big production of grain feed, henhouses, or pig and cattle farms — just a few examples.

In this form of society there are no medical bills that can’t be paid, no unemployment, no mortgages, no hunger and no homelessness. Changing careers is easy, and education doesn’t cost anything. Want to be a Hutterite? Sorry, they do not usually accept new members: you must be born into the colony.

As if that were not enough information for one day, Robert also took us on a tour of St. Claude’s dairy museum, where we got our brains wired with more interesting stuff:

And also a tour of the highway ditch to get us acquainted with the local flora:

These are lady slippers, which are wild orchids that are sometimes dug up to be transplanted to a garden, but the survival rate is low. That’s why no one will tell you where to find them! (Unless you are on a bicycle and certainly aren’t going to take one away.)

Gambling with the Bears

25 Jun

Did we mention we love Couchsurfing? There aren’t too many couches in rural areas, but we found one en route to Winnipeg. It turned out to be our most unique Couchsurfing experience to date. Our host, Brennan, said that since his house was “too messy right now,” he’d get us a complimentary room at the Bear Claw Hotel, where he is the operations manager.

We thought it would be directly in Carlyle but it turned out to be another gruelling 10km, uphill and into the wind. As we pulled up beside the hotel, a lady waved us over: “Come eat!” We didn’t need to be asked twice! They were giving away “fish fry” (fish ‘n’ chips without the chips), in celebration of National Aboriginal Day (June 21).

We had the pleasure to talk to Edward, the general manager of Bear Claw Casino and Hotel, who told us the story of the establishment. Back in the 80’s the White Bear First Nations community was considered one of the highest crime rate locations in Canada. The unemployment was sky high at 98%. It was not a good place to live.

Today it is difficult to imagine that life could have been so different here just thirty years ago. We chatted with two girls working at the fish fry, who proudly talked about living on the reserve and the natural beauty of the area.

In the 90’s, the White Bear First Nations band was looking for ways to improve life on the reserve. After visiting with other First Nations south of the 49th parallel, they decided to open a gaming facility. Realizing that the provincial government had given away their gaming rights to the Western provinces, they challenged the province as those rights are actually federal juristiction. Though they faced tremendous challenges, they had strong support from the local communities. In 1996 they managed to regain their gaming rights and formed SIGA – Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association.

Since its reopening in 1996, the casino has been very successful and has kept it as a goal to sustain the local communities. For the members of the White Bear community, the casino is an opportunity to work and get training. A portion of the casino’s profits go towards putting on community events such as National Aboriginal Day, or funding projects such as the Kenosee Lake playground.

They also support other First Nations communities: we discovered that they use really cool Mother Nature Essentials soaps and shampoos, made by a 100% Aboriginal owned business in Alberta, according to the label.

Peace, Love, and Co-ops

1 Jun

Bonanza! Day 10 was hard. After cycling up a 1535m pass, we found out the campground where we were planning to stay at was closed because of a problem grizzly bear. So we put in an extra 25km (okay, downhill) averaging 45km/h. Did you know? Grizzlies can actually run at speeds exceeding 50km/h!

On Day 11 we took it easy and cycled 50km to Nelson. By that point our bikes had survived 800+km, including 100+km on the KVR trail, so we took them to the bike shop. The bikes got a thorough inspection by Blair and we were warmly welcomed with locally brewed beer. The people at the shop were interested to hear about our project. Mark, a mechanic at the shop, had a sustainability story to share: since he moved to Nelson 4 years ago, he’s worked on reviving the three overgrown fruit trees in his yard. Last year was the first year they gave fruit. This year, his goal is to be self-sufficient and grow all his own fruits and greens. Way to go!

We were hosted by Anya’s extended MSLS family: Alison, Steven, and Elliot. We talked about Nelson’s focus on community and local economy.The municipality of Nelson, Alison told us, has a strict no billboard policy, which is why you can’t even find the Walmart in town. As for the McDonalds, there isn’t one, because the town didn’t allow one to be built. With that kind of support for local commerce from the municipality, it’s no surprise that Nelson is home to so many successful co-ops and small businesses.

As mentioned in our previous post, Nancy of Grand Forks told us about the Kootenay Food Co-op and gave us contact information. We were able to arrange a conversation with Jocelyn, who is currently the Co-op’s marketing manager.

The Co-op is amazing. It has been around for 37 years and has more than 10,000 members (population of Nelson – 20,000). They have everything in bulk – grains, tea, herbs, oil, shampoo, detergent, and more. A buzzing community hub, the Co-op hosts overwhelmingly popular cooking classes that sell out within 3 days of being announced. They also promote local production by mentoring, supporting, and encouraging local residents to start up their own food businesses.

Jocelyn is very knowledgeable and shared a lot of great ideas with us — so many that we can’t possibly cover them all in this entry. We recorded the conversation on video, so watch our movie when it comes out. For now, here’s a sample.

One thing we talked about are the difficulties of running a small, local farm. Large corporations lobby to lower the organic certification standards so that they are able to carry “organic” products, lowering the cost at the expense of food quality. In contrast, the food co-op preferentially purchases higher-quality, local food, and pays the farmers a fair price, while bringing affordable and top-notch produce to the co-op members. To actually be able to give a fair price to both farmer and consumer is an immense challenge that the co-op tackles daily.

Grand Forks, Spoons, and Knives

30 May

All right, get ready, make sure you don’t read this on an empty stomach, lots of food talk coming up.

In Rock Creek we met Dwight, who is cycling to Ontario. We kept running into him along the way, like at this little shack – OK Fruit and Dale’s Honey shop:

We bought delicious honey, orange honey marmalade, and chokecherry jam for very cheap. Dale was nowhere to be seen so after searching for a money box for a while, we finally deposited the money in a little ceramic container. Hope you find it, Dale!

Dwight was really excited to see the little shop. He told us how years ago, he was a vegan and animal rights activist, but since moving to the Cowichan on Vancouver Island he has given it up. There, he had a choice: to buy processed, GMO soy products from overseas, or to go across the street and buy meat, dairy, or fruit and vegetables from his neighbours. He now prefers to buy from people he knows, but that means, he’s not vegan and not even vegetarian.

In Grand Forks we couchsurfed with Nancy, who works at the Kettle Valley Food Co-op. The co-op is just starting up: after two years they have 160 members (of 4000 people living in Grand Forks), and Nancy is their first paid employee. The co-op links the farmer directly to the consumer, promoting the local economy and providing its members with the opportunity to buy locally grown and produced food.

Nancy not only works for the co-op, but also fully supports it. Her fridge is packed with amazingly tasty local products (aren’t we the luckiest guests?!). She is also very conscious about buying organic, which is much easier when you know your farmers as many of them grow organic foods and veggies, but are not certified because the certification is quite expensive.

The co-op is still establishing itself: they are working to get more members and vendors. As the co-op grows, Nancy believes it will encourage local farmers to grow crops year-round, and to develop a market for unique local products such as Haskap berries. Grand Forks, says Nancy, is a fertile area with a lot of potential; historically it’s been much more productive. The co-op will help to bring that back.

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