How Grassroots Projects Can Help Solve Community Social Issues
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How Grassroots Projects Can Help Solve Community Social Issues

To reduce energy costs, one local initiative retrofits inefficient toilets, shower heads, and faucets in low-income neighbourhoods.

Shaun Loney. Photo by Wayne Roberts.

Shaun Loney. Photo by Wayne Roberts.

Last week, Shaun Loney, a former senior civil servant from Manitoba who’s turned himself into Canada’s leading practitioner of “solutionary economics,” launched his new book.

In a packed meeting room at Massey College, he also introduced the audience to Building Up, the first local company based on his economic model.

For people who think about unemployment, global warming, and the plight of First Nations people in Canada as dreary problems, Loney’s book, An Army of Problem Solvers: Reconciliation and the Solutions Economy, is a 150-page caffeine hit.

Loney used to work for the Manitoba government as director of energy policy. He quit eight years ago. Since then, he has turned “No problem!” into an economic philosophy, rather than just a cursory way to say “You’re welcome.”

Loney has worked on grassroots economy projects with Indigenous people across Canada, and has helped 11 First Nations social enterprises find about $10-million of work.

His business plans are almost entirely based on ingenious savings that health and eco-services can generate. If governments enabled such initiatives—no need for governments to actually execute them—savings could fund what he calls “an army of problem solvers,” a phrase taken from Christian peace activists who speak of “an army of peace makers.”

For example, governments typically subsidize food-retailer Northern stores in about 120 First Nations communities to the tune of $68 million a year, which covers their costs of flying food into remote locations.

For a lot less, that money can be used to hire people in remote communities and to buy greenhouses and other basic technologies to grow fresh food for sale in the community.

The same principle applies to using permanent geothermal heat stored a few metres beneath the surface of the ground to heat homes and offices, thereby eliminating the costs of flying in diesel fuel.

Though the one-time costs of using greenhouses and other season-extension technology to grow food, or the installation costs of building ground-source heat, can be significant, they quickly pay for themselves thanks to savings—which are high due to the costs of weekly fly-ins of planes carting food and diesel fuel.

Geothermal units built over three years in four communities show that the $7 million investment will yield savings of $15 million over 20 years, Loney says.

Cost recovery is many times faster for 15,000 water retrofits that another social enterprise has completed.

But that form of planning for what economists call “import substitution” is only the first course of savings.

The jobs created by food production in communities where unemployment is widespread add to the well-being and dignity of formerly jobless youth, and can help to boost their mental health and social well-being.

That’s especially important in communities where the kinds of petty crimes people commit when they’re broke lead to high costs in the criminal courts system and jails.

Loney-inspired social enterprises make a point of giving a break to people with criminal records, so they gain training and a work resumé that help them to find jobs that give them a ladder out of poverty, and escape the slide that takes them back to jail.

The nutrient quality of fresh produce also reduces the costs of chronic disease. Governments often pay millions of dollars a year to support specialized local hospitals in relatively small communities to treat epidemic levels of illness related to diabetes—almost unheard of in Indigenous communities before the 1950s—and kidney disease.

Garden Island is one fly-in community in northeastern Manitoba that Loney knows well. Of some 3,000 people living there, 500 have diabetes. When Loney saw that, he said, “We have to get into the food business.”

As its name indicates, the people on Garden Island once fed themselves from gardens, as well as hunting. But the government program that subsidizes fly-in costs will not fund local growers. The subsidy is only available for flights of imports, not food that’s homegrown, making it difficult for homegrown to compete.

In 2010, Loney worked with members of the Garden Island First Nation on a project called Meechim (the Oji-Cree word for “food”). With ten staff, Meechim runs a 13-acre farm with a large vegetable garden, a small orchard, and about 1,000 chickens, turkeys, and hens.

In Loney’s view, government programs designed to empower people to solve challenges in their own communities could save money by funding such social enterprises entirely out of avoided healthcare and social assistance costs.

Another example is the Fisher River Cree Nation, about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg. It operates a social enterprise called Fisher River Builders. Serving 175 homes, it is the largest residential geothermal company in the Canadian west.

It costs about $18,000 to do the construction for geothermal heating and cooling in one home, for electrical energy savings of about $1,800 a year.

By charging for this upfront construction cost at $100 a month, Manitoba Hydro recoups its costs over time while residents pay less for heating and cooling than they did before. Everyone wins—the hydro corporation, the residents, and the formerly unemployed workers at Fisher River Builders.

The third level of savings is, as of yet, not countable. It’s the savings that come from reducing future levels of global warming by cancelling flights of freight carrying basic living supplies to remote communities. Perhaps the government will calculate such savings when carbon credits are established.

Though Loney’s family heritage is Anglo, he says his commitment to working with First Nations people grows out of his sense of the need for holistic truth and reconciliation, following the Canadian government’s breaking up of Indigenous families, forced assimilation, and residential schooling.

It’s well-recognized that residential schools were designed to “take the Indian out of the child,” he told the Massey College crowd. What’s less known is that the same colonialist mindset was designed to “take the Indian out of the economy.”

That parallel drive for economic assimilation has not been rectified or healed. Until 2014, First Nations people could not legally sell goods produced in their communities into the general economy. Government subsidies for fly-in services undermined the economic self-reliance in matters related to food, shelter, and clothing that had been the norm before the 1960s.

“Government doesn’t know what reconciliation looks like when it comes to economy,” Loney said, but he expressed confidence that Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, would introduce positive changes.

Loney hopes governments can see themselves in an enabling role, providing long-term loans in the same way Manitoba Hydro did—paying upfront for renovations, and then charging people monthly for the equipment until the investment and modest interest rate have been repaid.

Loney said he does not want grants; he wants the right to pay monthly on loans, and the removal of barriers to social entrepreneurship.

In Toronto, Building Up has been retrofitting inefficient toilets, shower heads, and faucets in 3,500 apartment units and homes in low-income neighbourhoods since 2014. The retrofits cost about $300 and save residents anywhere from $100 to $250 a year, depending on the quality of equipment that was replaced.

The social enterprise plans to expand into installations of energy efficient lighting, as well as painting, said Building Up’s executive director Marc Soberano.

The organization mainly hires people who have spotty resumés from the formal economy and who may have spent time in prison, and provides each employee with four months of paid training to learn the technical and social skills they’ll need.

Government support for this kind of community economics is the norm in Scotland, Loney said in a follow-up interview. The Scots now require all government contracts to include a “community benefit” clause, over and above performing the formal job contracted for.

As a result of this clause, he says, social enterprises in this country of 5 million people are growing at a rate of some 200 a year.

Loney’s book launch got an impromptu send-off from Hugh Segal. The former Conservative senator and longtime advocate for anti-poverty programs is now master at Massey College—built in honor of the family about whom the local ditty “Toronto has no social classes, only the Masseys and the masses” was written.

“What I got from the book was an understanding of what people could do for themselves, but which they now have to do at their own peril,” Segal said.

The peril needs to be taken out of government policy, he said.

Why? “Because it’s 2016.”

Loney’s book is available for purchase here. All proceeds go to support First Nations social enterprises.

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