The following is a letter I wrote to the Inverness Oran many years ago (I think – that or it was just a facebook note, or something).
Tea Time in Cape Breton
We often hear politicians talking about the things they are doing to help spur the economy and create jobs, but do we ever take the time to ask what that really means? Do we ever take the time to reflect on what our local economy looks like and whether there might be other things we can do besides leaving it up to the politicians? In order to answer these questions let’s first imagine what our economy looks like. This works whether we are talking about the economy of one community, like Mabou or Whycocomagh, or if we talked about the whole of Inverness County as one economy, or of Cape Breton Island, or of Canada. For this example, just imagine we are talking about your own community wherever that may be.
Let’s pretend your community’s economy is a teacup. The tea itself is the money in the economy. Where does the tea come from? The tea comes from a variety of teapots, some big and some small. When people who live in your community go somewhere else to work, they are bringing tea back home with them in the form of their paychecks, like if I lived in Judique but worked in Port Hawkesbury. When people in your community make something for, or provide a service to, someone else from outside of your community, more tea gets poured in, like in the tourism industry. One of the biggest teapots out there though, is the government’s teapot. This big teapot pours in tea for Employment Insurance and Social Assistance, government jobs, and a variety of programs and services. It can even create jobs sometimes too. This is one of the things we hear politicians talking about all the time. They hold the teapot in front of us and promise to pour. But after years and years of pouring from all these teapots, it seems like there’s still not much tea in our teacup, and we’re thirsty! Where does it all go?
Once the tea is in the teacup it swirls around a little bit when people buy things from one another inside the community – but there are a bunch of holes in the bottom of the teacup and all that tea is leaking out and we haven’t had a chance to enjoy it! Why does the tea leak out? When we go outside of our community to buy something we are taking our tea with us and we’re spending it somewhere else – in effect, we are acting as the teapot for another community! If we are going back and forth between small communities like Margaree and Inverness and we’re exchanging tea with one another – well, in Cape Breton that’s the proper thing to do – but if we’re taking all our tea and handing it over to someone we don’t even know in another country – that tea is gone and I promise you they will not be coming to your community to give any tea to you! I hate to pick on companies like Wal-Mart but it’s the one best example of how tea leaks out of our teacups.
So the politicians are hearing about how little tea is left in the teacups and what is their solution almost every time? That’s right, we’ll pour more tea into the teacup – and for a little while the tea is swirling around almost to the brim – but inevitably, by the time we go to take a sip, it has receded back down – it’s leaked out again. We can’t buy everything we need or want from inside our communities. As far as I know there’s nobody in Port Hastings manufacturing televisions and nobody in Cheticamp building automobiles – but when there is something we can get locally and we buy it locally, we are plugging one of those holes in the bottom of the teacup. So how do we fix the problem – by pouring more tea or plugging some of the holes? Seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it? [Insert your own politician joke here]
Let’s imagine for a minute that we made an effort, as much as possible, to plug some more holes in the teacup. What if we bought the groceries we could get at the local store instead of the big chain store in another town? What if we bought our gas from the local service centre rather than a company-owned station someplace else? What if we gave someone we love a locally, handmade gift as a birthday present they will cherish for years instead of something made in China that will last a couple months? The more and more holes we can plug in the teacup, slowly but surely, the level of tea will rise until finally it is overflowing. Then and only then can we enjoy it. Then and only then will our economy grow (our teacup will, by necessity, get bigger).
If we want to do what’s best for ourselves and for the future of our communities we will start now, for those who haven’t already, to begin actively seeking out locally made items and to turn the car around and go back to the local shops instead of heading out for shopping. Nothing will change overnight but it is not only possible – it is the only way. We just witnessed the federal government pour a pile of tea on Halifax in the form of the shipbuilding contract. Good for them. But to sit idly by and hope for something similar, for a politician to wave a teapot in our face, is thinking big in a very small way, when what we really must do to create the kind of local economy we need to give young people a choice for their futures, is to start thinking small in a really big way. And truth-be-told, I don’t mean to pick on the politicians. They’ve just been in the business of pouring tea for so long they’ve forgotten how to fix a teacup.
We’re Cape Bretoners. It’s time we started acting like it by sharing our tea with one another instead of giving it all away to people somewhere else we are never even going to meet who will never even thank us for it. Share your tea with a neighbour: buy local!
Adapted from “The Leaky Bucket Economic Analysis Tool” developed by Gord Cunningham at the Coady International Institute