Clem Sunter

All in the Canadian family

2014-04-10 11:21

Clem Sunter

Here I am on a Monday morning in cloudy weather in a small condominium in Downtown Vancouver. My wife and I, with our hosts, spent Sunday in Whistler, where we watched families with children as young as three or four skiing on the snowy slopes. Whistler is a small town two hours drive north of Vancouver, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Imagine being able to take your family any weekend you want to during winter and give them a day in the snow against the backdrop of stunning mountains.

But that is not the reason for this article. It arises from one statistic that I was given about British Columbia, the province in which Vancouver is situated: namely 90% of businesses in the province are family owned and for the whole of North America (i.e. Canada plus the US) the figure is over 50%.

When you walk through Vancouver you can see the design of the city encourages a balance between big and small business. While the skyscrapers dominate the skyline, at street level it is more like an old fashioned high street with individual shops dominating the scene. You notice an absence of shopping malls. One enterprising Japanese entrepreneur has set up a hot-dog stand in the street where the contents of the roll are Japanese specialties instead of mustard and meat. On his stall he has photographs of Steven Seagal and other stars munching his product.

Down by the water, some of the old wharf areas have been rehabilitated into markets where you can buy all kinds of interesting stuff, like soap that is made in the shape of fancy cup cakes, as well as the normal range of food and clothes. It is as if Greenmarket Square in Cape Town had been transported into the middle of the Waterfront.  In other words, what you don't see - other than Starbucks and a few other franchises - is just the same set of names dominating the retail scene leaving little space for the small guys.

The atmosphere in Vancouver has a laid-back quality about it, reminding one of the live-and-let-live spirit of a 1960s or 1970s commune. You see plenty of alternative people walking around in alternative clothes with alternative hairstyles. Yet it is a thoroughly modern city and the largest port, in terms of traffic, in North America.

There are no security fences or burglar bars around the houses, no ghettos around the perimeter of the city and no obvious presence of the Mounties that police the country. Crime is, on the whole, petty and you do not get the feeling that outrageous wealth lives side by side with inexcusable poverty.

In the lead-up to the election in South Africa next month, has any political party stressed the importance of family business? Or is the rhetoric all about state intervention to improve people's welfare and whether or not to nationalise the mines and the banks? What Vancouver has clearly shown me is that the principal way of elevating the quality of life for all is to make family business the centre of national economic policy and to give small enterprise enough space to make it happen. That and a decent system of education, healthcare, and law and order - material for another article.

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