Social entrepreneurs and the small food economy are key to community growth – and reconciliation

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

May 24, 2018

Author and social entrepreneur Shaun Loney has an answer to the chronic question about New Brunswick’s lagging economy: seek out employees with criminal records.

Loney recently toured the province advising staff and board members of non-profits and social enterprises on how to resolve complex social issues with dynamic money making ventures.

“I like to say social enterprise connects the people who most need the work with the work that most needs to get done,” said Loney, who argues New Brunswick’s labour shortage can be solved by looking beyond the usual places to find people with strong work ethics who just need the opportunity to prove it.

Loney is the author of “An Army of Problem Solvers”, which makes that case that social enterprises, social entrepreneurs and the small farm movement are the root of Canada’s ‘solutions economy’ and governments need to reduce the barriers to their success.

Loney says the solution economy can help by providing taxpayers a major break. Social issues like incarceration rates, social assistance and diet related diseases like diabetes can cost taxpayers and government millions. And he feels social business can help solve those issues will making some money.

Incarceration might cost taxpayers $100,000 a year for shelter, food and guards. In a lifetime it could cost to $2,000,000. In comparison, skills training is around $20,000 said Loney.

“The main challenge is getting government to agree to save money because problems are really expensive and solutions are always cheaper than problems,” said Loney.

At the heart of “An Army of Problem Solvers” is a call to embrace reconciliation and a new Nation-to-Nation relationship that empowers local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to chart their own path to economic, ecological and social sustainability.  

His own story is one of reconciliation. Back in 1931 his family built a local grocery store named Cloverleaf Grocery in Emo, Ontario. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Loney remembers his family and the store always had a lovely relationship with neighbouring Ojibwa communities of Rainy River and Naicatchewenin but years later local Ojibwa elders told Loney they had shopped in the store out of necessity after government policies placed strict restrictions on Ojibwa systems of gardening, fishing and hunting.

“My family benefited from the collapse of the local First Nation food market…It was like starting at third base and thinking you hit a triple,” said Loney, about the personal privilege he and other Canadians have benefited from, courtesy of over two centuries of colonial and Canadian policies against Indigenous people.

For him, reconciliation means recognizing that, which is why he created Aki Energy, a social enterprise focused on advising and supporting Indigenous people on how to use money making ventures to solve community problems by keeping that wealth in the community. For instance, to address high diabetes rates, Loney helped the Oji-Cree community of Garden Hill First Nation in northeastern Manitoba create and operate Meechim Market, which sources and sells healthier food.  

Loney said social enterprises such as Meechim Market are modelled to make money but benefit their community, so they hire people who may be homeless or have records. And in that way Loney said they have Indigenous values. He thinks this is a path forwarded to reconciliation.

Wendy Keats, the executive director of the Co-operative Enterprise Council of New Brunswick (CECNB), hosted one of Loney’s New Brunswick events and says she was shocked at the way Loney was able to get the Manitoba government to buy into social procurement.

The procurement program is based on a model started in Wales and perfected by Scotland. Businesses seeking government contracts must show how they’ll also indicate how they will provide benefits to the communities in which they work. In addition, Scotland sets aside part of their budget for social enterprise businesses. So companies that can prove they’ll help the environment or hire those with barriers to employment may have a higher chance of securing contracts.

“Scotland assigns points if the company is a social enterprise, so they get more points for adding to their community,” said Keats.

She said those businesses might have to train peoples with disabilities, or other skill sets, so there is an added cost to training. But in return Keats points out the contract comes with a social benefit.

“In order to change the economy we have to be in the economy. We can’t just be in the social end of things. We need to be developing the business concepts and models that meet that vision,” said Keats.


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