Companies with a conscience in the North

When you boil it down, the heated rhetoric of today's political fights revolves around one basic question: is government or private enterprise better at solving a problem? If an organization is set up to perform a social good -

When you boil it down, the heated rhetoric of today’s political fights revolves around one basic question: is government or private enterprise better at solving a problem?

If an organization is set up to perform a social good – like providing health care or welfare – leftists will scream bloody murder if profits enter the equation, skeptical of its corrupting influence.

And if a new government department is created instead, right-wingers will groan about lazy public servants, heavy regulation and the burdensome cost to taxpayers.

But what if there was a third way in this black-and-white debate?

A kind of organization that could protect itself from focusing on getting a small group of people very rich and at the same time have the nimbleness, self-reliance and efficiency of a company with a limited set of resources?

Well, turns out this “third sector,” as it’s sometimes called, operates all around us, though we rarely recognize it as such.

In fact, the North is a bastion for businesses that work with a conscience, say researchers holding a conference next week in Whitehorse on the third sector.

“Our goal is to reduce the waste going to landfills and our goal fits our business,” says Joy Snyder, the executive director of Raven Recycling.

The recycling centre is one of 1,500 organizations that make up the third sector, or the social economy, in the North, according to researchers.

The Northern Summit on the Social Economy, to be held next Tuesday and Wednesday at the Old Fire Hill, will present research on why Canada’s three territories have such a big third sector.

The organizations in the third sector have many different shapes and sizes, but they’re all united by a mandate to perform a social good while remaining as self-reliant as possible.

“Being independent from government is nice,” says Snyder.

Raven is what’s called a social enterprise.

It performs a basic social good – recycling the Yukon’s non-refundable waste – with profits from refundable recyclables like beer bottles.

Raven is registered as a non-profit society, but it’s unique because its existence depends on making money, not garnering donations.

It collects profits from other ventures too. It has a contract from the Yukon government to clean, repair and redistribute used computers.

It also manages the Whitehorse city dump’s gate booth.

Making a decision in government means navigating a tangled web of regulations, approvals and applications, all to make sure protocol is followed to a tee.

But the capacity for government to deliver a program suffers.

“Businesses move,” says Snyder. “And we can react like a business.”

There’s something honourable about the do-it-yourself attitude that goes into creating a social enterprise.

After the Yukon government created a refund system for some recyclables in the late 1980s, a group of local environmentalists decided to build a facility to manage it.

They didn’t plead for cash from taxpayers; they just got up and did it.

Snyder admits the limited resources of a social enterprise restrict it from expanding.

And there are times, like when the recycling market crashed two years ago and Raven needed a grant from Yukon government to operate, when the taxpayer lifeline must be summoned.

But for the most part, a social enterprise like Raven is able to hold its head high from criticism its living on someone else’s money.

“We’ve don’t have that problem,” says Snyder.

Other non-profit societies lose their independence by huddling under the wing of government.

“When we talk to government, we’re in a more powerful position,” says Snyder.

The third sector isn’t just social enterprises.

Another kind of business – the co-operative – is classified as third sector.

When the Yukon Artists at Work co-operative was created in 2003, their aim was to create a body with a social mandate but with its independence intact, says member Harreson Tanner.

“Let’s try and do this without government funding” was the attitude of the artists who put the co-operative together, says Tanner.

Artists were tired of writing grant proposals to make a living off their art work, he says.

The co-operative is meant to promote local artists who might not get attention in the touristy galleries.

Artists at Work runs a gallery where work reviewed by a jury is hung, and it provides aid for artists who are hit by financial hard times.

Just this week, a woman came into the gallery because she couldn’t find work by local artists, says Tanner.

“(Other galleries) have to hang products that will pay the rent,” he says.

While the Yukon Artists at Work gallery needs to make money by selling art, marketability isn’t its bottom line, he says.

The selection committee tries to show pieces by their quality and the artist’s professionalism, he says.

When a painting is sold at the gallery on Industrial Road, 75 per cent of the sale goes to the artist while 25 per cent goes to the co-operative.

Rent, heat and lighting are the co-operative’s only expenses, says Tanner.

In recent years, nasty name-calling by some conservatives – usually involving some hyped-up caricature of gala-attending, champagne-siping bohemians living off the government teet – grew intense.

The men and women at Yukon Artists at Work are insulated from such critics. They pay for themselves.

But like Raven, the co-operative leaned on government support on one occasion. It received funding this year to advertise its new location, says Tanner.

Exceptions aside, the third sector sounds at times like a breakthrough when it comes to the public versus private debate.

But, in a sense, it’s hardly innovative.

Before the size of government exploded in the mid-20th century, people who wanted something socially valuable done, did it themselves.

An organization sprung up from the community, not from a centralized government.

The third sector is the same thing as farmers coming together to form co-operatives to sell their products, says Snyder, the head of Raven Recycling.

“It’s a return to the old ways.”

For information on upcoming conference contact the Social Economy Research Network of the North at Yukon College by emailing or phoning 668-8857.

Contact James Munson at