SpruceRoots Magazine - December, 1998

Hour Islands, hour world, hour economy

by John McCartney Farrell

Funny isn't it. How we talk about shopping local and yet can't wait to buy from Costco.How we fly the flag of Island self-governance one day and vote our allegiance to the regional district the next. How we champion the need for local investment at the same time our $50-million Gwaii Trust nest egg is parked in a bank offshore. I mean, really folks, isn't it time to put our money where our mouth is. Better still, why not print our own.

A quarter-hour Kootenay barter buck!

The idea of creating a local currency system today seems about as revolutionary as wood glue. An estimated 72 community groups throughout North America, including five in British Columbia, already print their own dollars and operate so-called underground economies.Not to be outdone, bartering for goods and services among corporations translates into an $8-billion industry on this continent.
So, why not here? Certainly an alternative economy already exists on Haida Gwaii, but like one of those underground fires that smolder for years, it goes largely undetected. The currency may take the form of halibut steaks, cords of wood, bags of nettles, k'aaw or an hour of babysitting. But, the activities are localized - limited to close circles of friends and family - and ignore the involvement of the local retail and professional sectors.

Of course, printing banknotes is not something the Crown smiles on favourably. More precisely, it's illegal. But printing hours is not. That's the angle that Suzy Hamilton took by starting Kootenay Barter in 1994. Looking for a way of financing the publication of an edgy local newspaper, she came across the work of Paul Glover of Ithaca, New York, Glover ran a barter system and printed his own money, known as Ithaca Hours, the first local currency initiative of its kind. Since its inception seven years ago, Glover's colourful notes, which are stamped with the faces of local heroes not dead presidents, have generated more than $2 million in commerce.

Hamilton sent away for an information kit and, with a couple thousand Canadian dollars in seed capital, launched her own hours program which eventually supported the publication of a newspaper, the Barter Bulletin. Although the name hours implies some complex time-barter scheme, it is best to think of them as the equivalent of dollars - literally, time is money. In the case of the Kootenays, one hour represents $10, a half hour $5, a quarter hour $2.50, with a ceramic coin worth $1 to cover small transactions. Like cash, the hours can be spent on eveything from a hotel room, video rental, a foot massage, or a dozen eggs. In Nelson, to date, there are 3,900 hours in circulation being traded by 800 individuals with 52 businesses willing to accept the script as currency.

"This is good for retailers who take them [hours]," Hamilton explains by phone from her downtown headquarters in the EcoCentre, home to a handful of community activist groups. "They get cash which they might not have gotten with a new customer and link themselves with a buying market that wants to support them. Even in a small town, the local money will bring in new people. Who knows, a woman from Port might get her dog clipped in Sandspit because she met a groomer at a potluck."

Hamilton calls the potlucks the "glue of the system."Held every second month, these events are where participants develop the policy that governs the local currency. It's also a chance to meet your neighbours, a place to show off your goods, and the time to vote on extending grants or loans to worthy community groups.

Here's how it works. To become part of the hours system you need to list the goods or talents that you will be trading - baked goods, faxes, flea control, body piercing, appliance repair, hauling, rent, or bookkeeping skills - in the barter directory which lists people and merchants who accept hours. A small fee is charged for listing, but in return, you receive your first four Kootenay hours. And, from there, it's up to the seller and buyer to negotiate what is a fair exchange for any barterable item.

It's important to note that hours or "Barter Bucks" are not used to the exclusion of other forms of currency. In Nelson, if you were to mug a local resident you'd probably find barter bucks in among his credit cards, cheques and cash. And, most retailers will often take a mix of currencies. Over time, Hamilton says, the system will finetune itself and create its own loyalties. Putting it in an island context, Hamilton says, "If you're up in Masset and one fishermen takes 10 percent in barter bucks you'll probably buy from him. I switched my photo developing to Profile Photo because Lee takes 1/4 hour on $10 worth of developing. She spends her barter bucks on eggs and advertising. She's not swamped with them because she spends them reguarly."

To those retailers who see such a scheme as a losing proposition, advocates will be quick to respond "hum-bug." The spreadsheets show that a business owner is more likely to spend more on booze for the annual staff Christmas party than risk losing by taking $200 worth of barter bucks a year.

LETS get going ...
Artist Manzanita Snow and Paul Crawford made a valiant stab at setting up a similar bartering system in Charlotte. LETS, or Local Exchange Trading Systems, record debits and credits by way of a computer. In this system no dollars actually trade hands which, if there is a downside, tends to discourage retailers from joining in on the fun. Still, the system has a proven track record in Canada, especially in rural Ontario and Nova Scotia.

"It didn't work because we got our energy funneled into getting the farmer's market finished," says Snow. "Now we have a place to barter and trade, all we need is a workhorse to administer the program. It has to be someone with a hell of a lot of time... and computer skills. There's definately still interest out there."
That interest is manifested in the vigorous informal system that already exists on these Islands. Organizing that trade into a system, with its own made-in-Haida Gwaii currency, would not only provide everyone with more goods and services, but bring us closer to realizing such concepts as sustainability, value-added, and community stability. Now all this idea needs is a champion, someone who will dare to be local.


Paul Glover of Ithaca Hours has a package deal for self-starters, "Hometown Money Starter Kit," which comes replete with his book, Hometown Money, a video, copies of the program's directory, clippings and practical advice. Cost is $40 (US) from: Ithaca Hours, PO Box 6578, Ithaca, NY 14851.

A better deal for the price ($20 CAN) comes from the good people of Nelson, B.C. The Kootenay Barter supplies a similar but less fancy package of clippings, examples of hours script, a step-by-step guide that includes a sample budget and copies of the Barter Bulletin, which is a highly readable, community newspaper masquerading as a barter directory. Write: Kootenay Barter Bulletin, PO Box 843, Nelson, BC, V1L 6A5.

The best information on the LETS program is as close as Queen Charlotte City. For further information, contact comes from Ontario. Established in 1994, Peterborough LETS has an active membership slightly shy of 400 with a couple of dozen people joining per month. The area also supports a rural LETS program serving people outside city limits. Call them at (705) 743-3318.


SpruceRoots Magazine - December, 1998