Local policies stink of dirty laundering
In the Yukon, visiting dignitaries are given a lapel pin.
This spring, Chinese emissaries who accepted pins from Economic Development Minister Jim Kenyon must have got a kick out of receiving a Yukon pin made back home.
The tiny metal pins with the Yukon’s crest could have been made in Quebec or Ontario; nobody manufactures them here.
Instead, they were made 7,000 kilometres away in a country synonymous with human rights abuses, including labour practices that are both inhumane (iPod factory workers are locked overnight in a guarded dormitory) and often deadly (5,986 coal miners were killed on the job in 2005).
With all the money the Yukon siphons from the rest of Canada, you’d think it would feel a duty to support our fellow countryfolk.
So, why did the government buy Yukon pins from China?
What? It didn’t … ?
“We always stock local,” the territorial government’s central store manager told me.
So what’s up with the “Made in China” stamp on the back of those lapel pins?
Despite the ‘buy local’ policies of many governments, including the Yukon and Whitehorse, local doesn’t really mean local — as the Made in China/Bangladesh/Taiwan stamps on any number items in government warehouses will tell you.
Each commitment to buy local looks no further than the supplier.
This is as insulting as it is shortsighted.
And it’s one of innumerable unimaginative policies governments are in the habit of designing to appease and to shut down discussion.
It contains no real understanding of what it means to be a responsible consumer. And it benefits only a few local businesses.
It’s akin to laundering, obtaining illegal goods through legitimate means.
And the undertone of anticipated criticism, “We buy local! We can’t control what the local companies do!” is obvious — and childish.
It was no small miracle that Ottawa was embarrassed enough to put a stop to this charade.
In February, 2005, opposition MPs were outraged to discover “Made in China” written on the backs of maple leaf pins they were expected distribute.
They accused the Liberal government of pawning Canadian heritage with “pins of convenience.”
“Paul Martin put flags of convenience on his ships to escape Canadian labour and tax laws. Now he’s giving us the lapel flag of convenience,” said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus.
“The Mounties were given to Disney. They gave the Remembrance Day coin to Tim Hortons and now the Canadian flag has been shipped off to China,” spat Angus.
A quick rewriting of the parliamentary purchasing policy in favour of Canadian-based manufacturers — not just suppliers — resulted from just a few days’ goading.
On top of that, the Liberal government said it had been wrong in ignoring where the pins were made and shouldn’t have focused solely on the locality of the supplier.
The next batch of Canadian flag pins were Made in a Canada.
How great it would be if the next batch of Yukon pins were made in Canada — or better yet, here in the Yukon.
Maybe the territory could invest in a Yukon-based pin-manufacturing plant. Rumour has it there’s some metal in the territory.
Critics charge Ottawa’s swift turnaround on the flag pin debate shouldn’t have happened — that pingate was petty.
They argue taxes shouldn’t be squandered on something as small and insignificant as a lapel pin.
Buy cheaply from China, they say, and spend the difference on something important, like health care.
The savings on Chinese pins are indeed “substantial” — about 50 per cent cheaper than Canadian-made pins, according to local pinbroker, Dave Miller, owner of Dave’s Trophy Express.
And yet, Miller refuses to buy them.
“We’re a Canadian business; we support Canadian businesses,” says Miller, simply.
Instead of buying cheaply from China, Dave’s Trophy Express buys from a company that engages in no outsourcing — and which is unionized.
But he pays for it.
Many municipal and territorial government pin contracts have been lost to a local broker that imports from China.
But Miller ekes out a living — and that’s probably more than the pin makers in China can say.
So Miller, the small-business owner, is taking a loss on principle, but big governments aren’t willing to follow his example.
Again, it looks like it’s up to us — the individuals who own the government — to tell it what’s important.
In the meantime, those of us who are dedicated to buying local — we buy our produce at markets or vegetable stands in the summer, our fabric at boutiques rather than the big-box stores and our beer at the microbrewery — need to keep doing it, and to start doing it better.
Look at the fine print — ingredients, materials, where the product was made — to see how much, if any, of the product we are buying is Canadian.
It’s not a matter of patriotism, but of knowing where your stuff comes from and what the labour laws are in that country.
I know it gets tricky when we talk about Wal-Mart and other megastores, where a mass boycott would put dozens, maybe even hundreds, of local jobs in jeopardy.
But, as shoppers, you have to make these tough decisions, one pin at a time.
Juliann Fraser is a Whitehorse-based writer.