Minding Our Own Businesses: Commerce, Community and Renewal
Silver Donald Cameron
On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford shocked the business world by more than doubling his employees' wages, from $2.34 a day to $5.00. On that day, he said later, “we really started our business, for on that day we first created a lot of customers.”
In 1971, Allan Blakeney's government in Saskatchewan introduced Canada's highest minimum wage – and business profits went up. “Employees who get good wages spend their money,” says Blakeney, “ and – big surprise – employers do well.”
Business is an integral part of the larger community. It's the people of the community at work. It includes public-sector and non-profit businesses, like schools and hospitals and the Red Cross. Every business is a network of customers, employees, suppliers and professional practitioners. It relies on its community at every turn. And every community is equally reliant on its businesses.
In adversity, that deep integration is the greatest resource of both the community and its businesses. Ask the people of Isle Madame, Nova Scotia. What did they do when the codfish went away?
Travel with Silver Donald Cameron back to 1992, when the closure of the fishery threatened his island home with complete economic collapse. Isle Madame would lose 500 jobs in a workforce of 1500. A tsunami of unemployment would produce poverty, family breakdown, suicides, out-migration. Isle Madame could become an island of ghost villages.
Instead, the island's people came together to re-invent their economy and to help fisheries workers reinvent themselves. They started new businesses in new industries, financed by Nova Scotia's first community investment funds. They created new business models, lobbied and argued and built alliances. In five years – while other small communities withered – Isle Madame's people created 460 jobs, attracted $15 million in new investment, and cut their unemployment rate from 62% to 12.5%. They ultimately cut it to zero. Today the island is an importer of labour.
Silver Donald Cameron's colourfully-illustrated presentation is based on his own leadership role in the redevelopment process. As well as serving on the island's development organizations and writing its development plan, he analyzed the process in newspaper columns and magazine articles, and personally oversaw the creation of a non-profit community television station in Arichat which now serves the entire eastern shore of Cape Breton.
Silver Donald Cameron knows it can be done – because he's done it, and he's reflected deeply on the implications. The main lesson, he says, is a simple old truth.
“United we stand, divided we fall,” he says. “A community can't survive if its people can't earn a living, and business can't survive without workers, suppliers and a market. As businesses, as families, as citizens, we're completely interdependent. We find meaning, satisfaction and prosperity only in the framework of our community. It's a lesson that can benefit any community, anywhere, any time.”
He smiles. “Just ask Henry Ford.”