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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘What can I give?’: On Pender Island, a small-scale gift economy blooms

Meet the people seeking an alternative to ‘predatory capitalism’

By Martin Bauman
June 21, 2022
Economy
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘What can I give?’: On Pender Island, a small-scale gift economy blooms

Meet the people seeking an alternative to ‘predatory capitalism’

By Martin Bauman
Jun 21, 2022
Roland Maurice (left) and Ben Kadel (right) started Highgrove Farms in 2020. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily
Roland Maurice (left) and Ben Kadel (right) started Highgrove Farms in 2020. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily
Economy
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘What can I give?’: On Pender Island, a small-scale gift economy blooms

Meet the people seeking an alternative to ‘predatory capitalism’

By Martin Bauman
June 21, 2022
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‘What can I give?’: On Pender Island, a small-scale gift economy blooms
Roland Maurice (left) and Ben Kadel (right) started Highgrove Farms in 2020. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

Ben Kadel has an ongoing quarrel with his blackberry bushes. They were everywhere when he and his partner, Roland Maurice, moved onto their 44-acre Pender Island farm in 2020. It was a former clear cut property: a forgotten scrabble of hilly land on the northeastern rim of the island. Nothing had been tilled, nor cultivated. No rows of perfectly planted crops. No chicken coops. No pig runs or goat pens. So remote was the road that Google Maps still refuses to acknowledge its existence. 

“We knew it wasn’t Martha Stewart perfect,” Maurice jokes.

On a rainy afternoon in early June, the land looks a world apart from when Kadel and Maurice first laid eyes on it. Squash, beans, and corn have taken root. The fields are lush, green as the moss that coats the cedars surrounding the property. A pen of pigs happily devour their latest lunch. Up the hill, their loaner goats are working to clear away the tall grass and broom—and the pesky blackberry thorns that Kadel hopes to coax, bramble by bramble, into becoming a natural, living livestock fence.

“I always come back a little bloody,” Kadel says.

Ben Kadel looks over the goat pen where Mrs. Malloy (pictured behind the fence) grazes on a patch of grass. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

To call the place a farm is to fall short of its tenders’ ambitions. It’s a commons, a place the two hope others will feel encouraged and welcomed to grow crops, even raise livestock, of their own. The whole property is available for people to use, Kadel says. A “living lab” is how their live-in assistant and commons collaborator, Paz Q Rainville, describes it: an experiment in small-scale regenerative farming and hyper-local, community-oriented food production.

But spend an afternoon at the farm, or a long lunch of lentil soup and lemon biscuits, and you’ll see it’s also an act of rebellion—a response to an economic system Kadel describes, without irony, as “predatory capitalism.”

It’s a system they’re working to dismantle, one act of giving at a time.

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‘Money’s just a thing that burns’

It is easy to understand the appeal of raging against the machine when the affordability of everything from household goods, to gas, to housing has taken its biggest hit in decades. According to the Victoria Real Estate Board, the benchmark price of a single-family home in Greater Victoria rose by 23.8% between May 2021 and May 2022 to $1,446,400. Prices of everyday goods rose by 6.8% across Canada from April 2021 to April 2022—a number that’s even higher, 9.7%, for grocery purchases. It was the largest sustained increase in prices since 1981.

Kadel and Maurice are also far from the first to have pioneered the concept of a gift economy. It is, in many ways, as old as human history. The practice of giving without expecting anything in return stretches back millennia in the Pacific Northwest. The potlatches of the Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, including the Lekwungen-speaking people of southern Vancouver Island, have a rich tradition of gift-giving: one in which a family’s status is raised not by accumulating wealth, but by spreading it around.

The 'Namgis Big House in Alert Bay, BC. Photo: A.Davey / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“Gatherings sit at the heart of Coast Salish livelihood,” writes Dr. Dara Kelly, a scholar from the Leq’á:mel First Nation near Chilliwack, “because the voices of the ancestors have taught that feasting, gifting, speaking, sharing, listening, remembering, interdependence and interconnectedness are values that should be nurtured.”

An assistant professor of Indigenous business at Simon Fraser University, Kelly has an acute understanding of the meaning of wealth in Coast Salish culture—she spent her doctoral research on that very question. What she found was that “wealth” and “leader” have the same root word, síy̓am, across Coast Salish territory. Both come through knowledge and lineage: a connection to one’s ancestors, and also one’s role within a community. (Capital Daily reached out to Dr. Kelly for an interview, but could not arrange one before publication.)

Leadership, or wealth, is less about a person themselves, and more about their contribution to the world, she told the Bigger Than Me Podcast.

“And it is aligned with the idea of gifts: that everybody has a gift to offer to society,” she said.

The same philosophy holds true among the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of northeastern Vancouver Island, for whom potlatching was so important, they carried on with the practice well after the Canadian government banned it in 1884 under racist policies introduced by Sir John A. MacDonald. 

It was 1921 when ‘Namgis Chief Dan Cranmer held what came to be known as the largest potlatch in recorded history on British Columbia’s coast in the village of ʼMimkwa̱mlis, 25 kilometres west of Alert Bay. 

Forty-five people were arrested. Twenty-two went to jail.

“My grandfather [Pat Alfred] was sent to jail because of potlatching,” ‘Namgis carver Marcus Alfred tells documentary producer Robin McKenna in Gift. “[The government] didn’t like the idea of us making all that money then giving it away. But we had a really good system here that went on since the beginning of time: a giving system, a system where everybody got something.”

“Wealth is many, many things, not just money,” Alfred’s father, ‘Namgis knowledge keeper Wayne Alfred, adds.

“Money’s just a thing that burns; it’s the cheapest of all of them.”

‘How do we learn quickly from each other?’

If Kadel and Maurice set out to topple capitalism on their Pender Island farm, they were handed an inauspicious start. They moved into their new home on March 2, 2020. Nine days later, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic

They’d been hoping for extra hands in getting Highgrove Farms off the ground—the kind that came from friends, curious farm visitors, and busybodies. Plus, they still needed to secure farm status with BC Assessment: a labour-intensive process that meant they’d need to produce and sell food, and quickly, in order to lower their property tax burden. On a property of their size, that meant clearing $2,500 in gross farm income, plus five percent of the land’s value in excess of ten acres.

“We knew we were on our own for the first season, at least,” Kadel wrote in a blog post a year later.

Ben Kadel (left) and Roland Maurice (right) at the doorway to their Pender Island farmhouse. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

The living was spartan in the early months. The first thing they’d discovered about their new living quarters was they didn’t have an oven or stove. There were no obvious connections for one, either. Furnishings were sparse: a table and folding chairs, left behind in the barn. They weren’t entirely destitute—they’d brought a dining table, two folding tables, an armoire, and a pair of bedside tables along with them—but their options for further comforts were limited. Most secondhand furniture stores had closed in the early pandemic lockdown. They slept on an inflatable mattress to make do.

“We talk about mottos on the farm,” Kadel says. “One is, ‘That took a lot longer than I thought it was going to.’ The other one is, ‘Today did not go according to plan.’”

But if the pandemic brought unexpected burdens, help came from unforeseen places, too. Upon hearing of Kadel and Maurice’s predicament, friends gifted a stove from their farm kitchen. Soon, other offers poured in: furniture, pig troughs, power tools. A friend’s grandfather gifted an entire set of workshop wonders: vices, clamps, hand sanders, an electric jigsaw, a hand planer, and a radial arm saw. Another set of friends offered goats who were happy for extra grazing.

Before long, they had a farm.

***

Look around the second-storey living quarters at Highgrove Farms today, and the notion of giving takes on a mantra-like quality. There it is, scrawled on pink and yellow Post-It notes, in between Zen koans and written yoga exercises. Ask yourself, what can I give? one reads. 

Maurice describes it as akin to a spiritual practice, though he doesn’t subscribe fully to the notion of a gift economy—or rather, the limitations of its phrasing.

“I think that we've developed all sorts of words to try to describe it,” he says, “but they are also a way of discounting it, like charity and philanthropy… as opposed to, ‘I’m inviting you to engage in this thing with me.’”

Roland Maurice grew up in Lafontaine, Ontario, and became environmentally aware after the acid rain scare of the 1970s and 80s. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

An avid reader, equally likely to cite Octavia E. Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin in conversation, Maurice has a hard time recalling when he first became disillusioned with capitalism. 

Raised in the francophone village of Lafontaine, Ontario—“the end of the road,” he says—he recalls the acid rain scare of the 1970s and 80s as among his earliest eco-conscious influences. His family had a sugar bush. But his father noticed the tops of the trees from which they harvested the sap to make maple syrup had begun to brown and die. For Great Lakes farmers, it was a shock to the system: the rain posed a threat to more than a quarter of Ontario’s agricultural land. Fish were dying in rivers and streams. 

It was as an art historian, and then historical research assistant, that Maurice came back to thinking about “the origins of things,” as he describes it.

“I came to the realization that civilization is completely dependent on food. And we've lost contact with food,” he says.

He and Kadel have been working to rectify that on the farm. At the same time, they’ve been forging connections within their community. The two introduced a bean collective last year at Highgrove. Each year, a group of families comes together to grow and harvest enough beans to last them through the year. (Last year’s haul: 28 kilograms of Black Turtle beans, Black Cocos, Beka Browns, Hidatsa Shields, Tiger’s Eye, and Kenearly Yellow Eye.) Everyone has a hand in the work—from providing the seeds, to building the garden beds, to tending to the vines. They’re also piloting a “Lifeboat Project,” which Kadel describes as an effort to build a network of like-minded farmers and problem-solvers.

The Highgrove farm, as seen from up high on their leased 44-acre property. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

“What we are trying to do is develop a model that other people can follow… and also [find] other people doing similar things,” he says.

If they can share knowledge and resources with other communal food networks, the thinking goes, they can learn—and expand their reach—more quickly. For a busy farm venture, it can be a time-saver.

“We don't have to reinvent the wheel.”

Their ultimate goal is to feed 16 people with the food produced at Highgrove—a rough approximation of what their 44 acres could provide for on a yearly basis, following a baseline diet that covers the major food groups. (A 2016 study from Tufts University researchers pegged the average American “foodprint” at 2.67 acres per person.)

They figure the pigs alone would provide for the meat requirements of 20 people, but other areas are farther behind. They aren’t growing any grains yet. They planted nut trees this year, but they won’t reach maturity for another 10 years. That’s the whole crux of regenerative farming, Kadel says: it takes time. 

“It’s not like construction,” he says. There’s no razed land, no tabula rasa, upon which to manufacture a system from zero; instead, it’s about learning how each mini-system fits within the greater whole.

“Even if we had just been given a whack of cash and this property, and a lot of help, it would still be years.”

‘Shifting our relationship with our stuff’

A rising cost of living isn’t the only factor sparking a renewed interest in alternative economies. There are ecological reasons, too. A gift economy is a circular economy, one in which our wares are kept from becoming waste—and fewer resources are needed to make the next new goods. 

It’s a needed shift: a 2018 report found Canadians are tied for the fifth-highest ecological footprint per capita of any nation. (If the Earth’s biocapacity—the amount of land it needs to absorb waste and support life—is 12.2 billion global hectares, or 1.7 hectares per person, Canadians consume 4.8 times that much.) In Metro Vancouver alone, residents toss about 44 million pounds of textiles per year, or roughly the equivalent of 44 t-shirts per person. A 2011 Statistics Canada survey found British Columbia had the highest percentage of residents within Canada with electronic waste to dispose of.

It was in the spirit of bucking that trend that Constance Fischer became involved in Victoria’s Buy Nothing community. Since 2016, the mother of two has moderated the Buy Nothing Victoria (East), BC Facebook group and its 2,200 members spread across Fernwood, Fairfield, Oak Bay, and Oaklands. Take a scroll down the page on any given day, and you’ll see everything from kids’ toy wagons to dinghies to barbecues on offer for free. Nothing is for sale, and no trades are accepted. Any items or services offered must be gifted or loaned.

The driving ethos, Fischer told Capital Daily, is to give items a “second life, third life, fourth life.”

“You can gain appreciation knowing that another child is getting the enjoyment and fulfillment out of something that cost you $100,” she says. “And these days, $100 is steep.”

Fischer’s baptism into the Buy Nothing world started about as small as can be: with a collection of Thrifty Foods coupon stickers she’d amassed but wasn’t using. Another Facebook group member had posted in search of stickers they could use to complete their coupon booklet and trade it in for cookware. Fischer offered hers. The two ended up becoming friends.

“That’s the main derivative… you become closer to your neighbours. Because it’s all in the sense of community,” she says.

It was that same community drive—and a conservationist bent—that birthed the Buy Nothing Project in 2013. Before it grew to reach 5.3 million people in 44 countries and spawned its own book, it started in a sleepy suburb across the Juan de Fuca Strait. Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark met in a Bainbridge Island Freecycle group. A documentary filmmaker, Clark had spent her teen years in New Hampshire, living in a mountain home her family built from recycled wood. Rockefeller was a conscientious composter who made all-purpose cleaner from leftover orange peels and white vinegar. 

Rebecca Rockefeller (left) and Liesl Clark (right) met through Bainbridge Island's Freecycle community before launching their first Buy Nothing group. Photo: Liesl Clark

The two kick-started a beach plastic education program for local schools. They ran “zero waste” audits and built a database of re-use solutions for everyday goods. They also started their first “Buy Nothing” community on Facebook: a group where they could give things away and tell stories about the wares they were gifting. They’d been part of similar groups before—the Freecycle nonprofit began in 2003—but they felt stifled by what they could share in other groups. They wanted to be whimsical. Irreverent. Get to know the people behind the email addresses they were trading gifts with.

Plus, they figured, stories were the very things that would make a gift economy work.

“When we see the people behind [our] stuff and care about them more than we care about the stuff,” Rockefeller says, “then we're gonna start shifting our relationship with our stuff, our relationship with the materials economy, our production of waste, our use of single-use objects, all of these things.”

‘It’s an ongoing experiment’

Kadel and Maurice are not yet where they hoped they would be with Highgrove Farms. The work is demanding; the days, long. The weather… well, you know how it’s been. There are bills to pay. Rent is due. Pigs, chickens, and goats to feed. And all that takes place within an economic system that, much as they make strides to work outside of it, has proven tricky to truly leave behind. It’s hard to work in a gift economy when it feels like the flow is more out than in.

From left: Roland Maurice, Paz Q Rainville, and Ben Kadel outside of Highgrove Farms. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

They’re aware of being outliers. Pender allows for that, anyway—encourages it, even.

“You get more quirk per capita here,” says Kadel.

Still, he notes, evangelizing on small-scale, reciprocal communities as opposed to the Wal-Marts and Amazons can feel like an attempt to describe water to fish. How to talk about an escape from capitalism when it’s everywhere? How do you reimagine a system that produced your house, your clothes, your fridge, your laptop, the beans in your morning coffee?

“You're trying to talk about some beliefs that are so fundamental that people don't even understand that there's an alternative,” Kadel says.

“[Living like this] is an experiment. It’s an ongoing experiment,” Rainville admits.

In this way, their farm is more than an act of rebellion; it’s also a sort of trust fall. There’s a letting go required in giving without expecting anything in return. It demands hope. Seeds and waters it. Changes a person’s outlook.

Maybe that, more than anything, is the gift of a gift economy. It isn’t really about what comes back, Rainville says.

“You're giving because you have the ability to give.”

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Martin Bauman
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‘What can I give?’: On Pender Island, a small-scale gift economy blooms
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