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Infused with awareness

The Gazette

That granola-crunching sound emanating from the little town of Wakefield, a half-hour north of Ottawa on the banks of the Gatineau River in Quebec, is about to get a lot louder.

On Nov. 9, the sprawling municipality of La Pêche (of which Wakefield is the undisputed centrepiece), will unveil its new identity as Canada’s second official Fair Trade Town, following in the footsteps of Wolfville, N.S.


“We’ve always been pretty crunchy,” admits Anne Winship, owner of Wakefield’s Bean Fair Coffee, and the driving force behind the official designation.

La Pêche municipal council voted to ratify the Fair Trade Town moniker in September, and to purchase nothing but fair-trade coffee and snacks for its sundry meetings and events.

“A lot of our businesses already sold fair trade goods, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch to get the rest of the town on board,” Winship says.

Wakefield has a well-earned reputation as a hotbed of social awareness and environmental activism. It’s the only place I know, for example, where you can walk into a restaurant (Le Soupçon) and pay $15 for a $14 bowl of Thai noodles; an extra dollar is levied on all meals to cover the cost of the restaurant’s commitment to serving only locally grown or raised food.

Says Soupçon proprietor Tanya Skeates: “Of course we could just raise the prices on the menu to $15, but what would be the point of that? The idea is to raise awareness, to get people thinking about the value of locally produced food.”

Likewise, Wakefield’s designation as a Fair Trade Town is largely symbolic. It means, among other things, that La Pêche agrees to encourage access to fair-trade-certified products in the community and increase education and public awareness about fair trade and sustainable consumption.

The concept is fairly simple: Instead of paying market prices for Third World commodities and manufactured goods, fair-trade organizations agree to pay above-market prices to ensure workers a reasonable standard of living and promote environmentally sustainable practices. Of course, that means the fair traders must pass this additional cost on to consumers, which they do in the form of higher-than-market prices for a kilo of coffee or a fair-trade chocolate bar.

Given the fact fair-trade sales in Canada have been more than doubling every two years (62 per cent growth last year alone, according to TransFair Canada, the industry’s certification and audit body), it’s a price more and more consumers appear willing to pay.

“There’s been a huge amount of interest and growth,” says Reykia Fick, TransFair Canada’s outreach co-ordinator.

“It’s part of a broader movement of people looking for sustainable and ethical alternatives to run-of-the-mill consumerism, a concrete way for people to address global issues of poverty, environmental degradation and global trading practices.”

There are skeptics and detractors. Some argue fair trade is a form of subsidy, and as such breeds dependence rather than self-reliance. Others go farther, suggesting that fair-trade organizations do long-term damage by perpetuating the oversupply of various commodities - encouraging people to continue planting and harvesting coffee, say, when prices are so low they have to be artificially boosted in order for coffee growers to survive.

Another complaint is that, while fair-trade organizations set prices for the purchase of Third World goods, no one regulates the price at which those products can be resold. When you agree to pay an extra $5 for a half-kilo of fair-trade coffee, only some of that $5 is going to support the producers; the rest is taken in profit by the retailer.

None of these quibbles matter to Winship. She’s busy selling fair-trade coffee at Bean Fair, and when she gets hungry she nips out to the Wakefield bakery for a pastry made with fair-trade chocolate, or to the local candy maker for a sweet made with fair-trade sugar.

You can get a lot done when you’re hopped up on caffeine, coco and sugar. Thus, in addition to running her coffee shop, she and the rest of her fair-trade steering committee are busy organizing a week-long celebration beginning Saturday and ending with an official launch party Nov. 9 at the Black Sheep Inn. Oh, and she also found time to borrow a neighbour’s mule for an updated Juan Valdez fair-trade photo shoot.


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