Back in the early 1990s, a handful of eco-folk opened the EcoCentre on Ward Street in what is now the Fisherman’s Market. The public area in the front overflowed with newsletters, posters and pamphlets (in those days email was pretty new-fangled, and the National Science Foundation still owned the Internet). In the back were three windowless offices and a bathroom. In one office I worked on grizzly bear conservation and promoted the emerging science of landscape ecology. In another, people affiliated with the Green Party came and went. But my most active office-mate was the indomitable Suzy Hamilton, and her project called Kootenay Barter.
Kootenay Barter was modeled on Ithaca Hours, a successful barter system from upstate New York that used a printed local currency for its transactions. Here in Nelson, Suzy and her team valued an hour of anyone’s time at $10, and printed what came to be known as “Barter Bucks,” in denominations of full, half and quarter-hours. Members got two hours for signing up. Goods and services offered were listed in the Barter Bulletin (alongside some pretty daring activist writing), and bi-monthly potlucks served to keep people engaged.
Kootenay Barter was the Kootenay’s first stab at local currency. It was also a lot of volunteer work to maintain, and eventually Suzy went on to other projects. Since then, the local currency (and local everything) movement has become much stronger, fueled by increased awareness of the fragility and inequity of our globalized economic system. Today, an estimated 2,500 community currencies are in use world-wide, including about a dozen in Canada. On July 18, Nelson stepped up for round two, with the official launch of Columbia Community Dollars (C$ for short).
C$ are printed bills designed by local artist Robert Strutin and featuring images of local landscapes and wildlife taken by some of our best photographers. They are valued on par with the national currency, but only accepted in the Columbia Basin. C$ are being slowly released into the community: the 50 businesses that were the first to sign up to accept C$ are each being given some to donate to the local non-profit of their choice. Supporters of those non-profits (like, you) then buy the C$ from them. It’s a great deal for the non-profits, who essentially get free wealth. But what then?
You start spending your C$. So far 53 businesses have signed up to take at least 20 per cent of the value of your transaction in C$. (See the list at communitydollars.ca.) Coffee is easy, with six java purveyors listed so far. You can buy clothes and books, and services ranging from shiatsu to counselling to legal advice. You can hire a plumber, electrician or web designer. And you can dine out in our fair city.
The idea is to keep our wealth in our communities, strengthening our local and regional economy by keeping more economic activity circulating here, and less draining away to Kelowna, Spokane, New York or Beijing.
There is a bunch of theory underpinning this, which you can read about at the C$ website and many other places online. I find it just makes intuitive sense. What, after all, is real wealth? Is it numbers on our RRSP reports, telling us how our fossil fuel investments are doing? Or is it the tangible things that directly support our lives, and illustrate our interdependence?
What about the City of Nelson? We are currently exploring accepting C$ in partial payment for hydro bills and parking fines. And down the line, who knows? In Brixton, England, city employees can opt to receive a portion of their salary in Brixton Pounds (featuring pictures of famous Brixtonites like David Bowie and WW2 spy Violette Szabo).
I could well end up receiving a little of my council stipend in herons and jays.
Candace Batycki is a Nelson city councillor who shares this Wednesday space with her colleagues around the table.