Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Now is Always the Best Time to Better Our World

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  July 11 / 09

Zack Gross

Manitoba is an impressive province.  Although our economy doesn’t boom and our population grows slowly, we rank in the top two annually as the most generous people in Canada (our competition is Newfoundland). 

For thirty-five years, our provincial governments, no matter which party has been in power, have contributed stable funding to international development and disaster relief efforts.  We have also been the home of some globally respected organizations working in partnership with the world’s poor, such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Brandon-Westman’s Marquis Project.

There was a time when global poverty ranked 40th in the public’s perception of priority issues.  But, then, that began to change.  We began to travel more.  We became more actively aware of the growing environmental crisis. 

The Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in South Asia.   Celebrities that we revere began to speak out and raise funds through campaigns such as “Make Poverty History”.

 The public turned on to fair trade products.  In the last couple of federal elections, environment, aid and global poverty “suddenly” became top-ten issues.  A golden opportunity arose to make real progress in our attempts as global activists to engage with an interested, more knowledgeable public.

The economic downturn that might have caused paralysis and cynicism really hasn’t dampened the public’s enthusiasm for generous donations, ethical purchasing, overseas volunteerism or other concrete initiatives to better our world.  A recent newspaper article referred to fair trade as “recession-proof”, as sales remain strong. 

In a poll done this spring by Probe Research, more than half of the 1000 Manitobans questioned could define the term “fair trade” and almost three-quarters of Manitobans were willing to purchase fair trade products even if they cost a little more. 

Five thousand people participated in the fair trade “One Month Challenge” over this past winter, where Manitobans were asked to consume fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate rather than conventional brands. 

Michael Zelmer of Transfair Canada, the national fair trade certification body, on a visit to the province in February, said: “Manitoba is really on the radar now when it comes to fair trade in Canada.  People in the business of fair trade are starting to pay attention.”

Schools and churches have also gotten in on the global action.  St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Brandon has had a decade-long relationship with agricultural projects in Tanzania, while Fort Garry United Church in Winnipeg has sponsored the building of a youth arts and recreation centre in Bolivia.    Springfield Collegiate in Oakbank recently sent a student group to El Salvador to build a house with Habitat for Humanity while Pierre Elliot Trudeau Collegiate in Winnipeg regularly sends students on summer assignments in Bolivia and has furnished a child care centre there. 

International development organizations, such as MCIC, World Vision, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Engineers without Borders are reaching tens of thousands of students of all ages through a variety of programs to create global citizens among our youth.

Not all programming for change is aimed overseas.  Resulting from their study of world environment issues, students around Manitoba are making local changes, too.  Douglas Elementary School and its students installed urinal sensors in the boys’ washrooms and distributed reusable stainless steel water bottles to every student. 

Gimli High School students funded low flush toilets and water faucet aerators in their school’s bathrooms.  Manitoba’s Evergreen School Division in the Interlake voted to “go fair trade” and Gimli, supported by its Municipal Council, youth and merchants, will become Canada’s sixth Fair Trade Town on Canada Day.

Charitable organizations in Manitoba that support international development assistance projects and global education raise over $20 million annually. 

The Manitoba Government pitches in with $1 million per year, while CIDA and other funders double and re-double that total.  Everyone benefits as meeting the challenges of disease, conflict and environmental degradation overseas also keeps us safe. 

The challenges that our world faces are many and sometimes daunting.  Half of the 6.5 billion people who live on Earth earn less than $2 per day.  2008 Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari of Finland said in his acceptance speech that “if we work together, we can find solutions. 

We should not accept any excuses from those in power.”  

There is a collaborative effort of Manitobans – schools, churches, charities, government and citizens – now underway to make a better world. 

It’s never too late to get involved.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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