Movement gaining ground in Alberta

A growing fair-trade movement is striving to make inroads in Alberta.

Two new initiatives in Calgary and Edmonton have been designed to educate businesses and consumers about how purchasing decisions in First World countries can have an impact on workers from Third World communities.

The events, both fair-trade fairs, were held in Calgary and Edmonton recently as part of Canada’s third annual National Fair Trade Week. And according to their respective organizers, each one was just the beginning of something bigger.

“It’s not right that coffee farmers should produce their coffee below their cost while we’re still paying $3 for a latte,” said Neil Ladell, chairperson of Oxfam Canada’s regional steering committee and spokesperson for the Calgary Fair Trade Coalition.

But even though Canada is one of the fastest-growing world markets for fair-trade products, increasing 66 per cent in 2003, fair-trade representatives said work needs to be done in Alberta.

Compared to cities such as Montreal or Vancouver, Edmonton is far behind when it comes to supporting fair-trade products, said Didem Varol, a spokeswoman and volunteer for that city’s first Small Change, Big Difference Fair Trade fair.

“But compared to 10 years ago in Edmonton, the market is growing,” she said.

At Edmonton’s May 11 Fair Trade event, which drew more than 300 participants, Varol said the goal was to raise the profile of fair trade.

“Large corporations can set prices, which sometimes don’t even cover the cost of production. They inhibit workers to organize unions and they generally don’t have any sustained practices.

What this results in is extreme poverty in Third-World countries and a feeling by these people that there’s a lack of control over their own destiny.”

Participants in Edmonton included local merchants who sell fair-trade products, while an educational component covered environmental, economic and social justice issues.

“We’re a bit of an oasis in the province of Alberta in being socially aware and socially active. This is a good area for that, it attracts and appeals to a lot of people who are socially conscious,” said Varol, referring to the trendy south side where the event was held and where many Strathcona residents are known for their left-leaning views.

Calgary’s first Fair Trade festival, held May 8 in the Kensington district, attracted more than 400 people, with organizations and businesses sharing in the fair-trade fare.

The Calgary Fair Trade Coalition, which has a mandate to collectively support businesses selling and using fair-trade goods, and to provide ongoing public education about the personal impact consumers have in their buying choices, said that if anything came out of their event, it was that people wanted to know more about fair trade.

“We want to raise awareness,” said Ladell. “People aren’t entirely aware of the ethics that go along with buying products. Our objective is just to raise awareness to encourage ethical consumption.”

Meanwhile, the City of Calgary proclaimed May 1 to 15, 2004, as Fair Trade Awareness Weeks, stating “Fair trade contributes to sustainable development and improves the lives of workers in communities that produce and supply many of our consumer goods.”

The city is also reviewing its purchasing policies to better reflect ethical decisions, with the matter to go to council at a future date.

Fair-trade products, which carry a Fair Trade Certified logo, include coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa, chocolate and sports balls. Additional items such as drinks and fruit are expected to be available on retail shelves across Canada in the not-too-distant future.

Buying a product with a Fair Trade Certified logo guarantees the farmer was paid a fair price for the product and ensures it has been produced by meeting environmental and trading standards, according to Ottawa-based TransFair Canada, the country’s only independent certification organization for fair- trade coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar.

For Gord Christie, the Calgary and District Labour Council’s executive secretary and organizer, the increased focus is part of a movement that has been percolating in Calgary for close to 15 years.

Earlier initiatives, said Christie, related to demonstrations, rallies and awareness campaigns. One of those, revolving around the Christmas season, focused on the fact that children should be playing with, not making, toys.

Other activities targeted Nike and educating The Bay about the virtues of selling no-sweat products.

Compared to 15 years ago, knowledge about fair trade and related issues is high, said Christie, who remembers fair-trade coffee that once produced a very bitter product. That, however, is no longer the case today, he added.