Globe and Mail: Small-business owners question Statscan productivity numbers

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail January 9, 2014

Bigger is better and Canada doesn’t have enough big, according to a recent Statistics Canada study that compares labour productivity in Canada and the United States.

The study said Canada’s comparatively large share of small firms is responsible for the difference in productivity – measured as GDP generated per hour worked – between the two countries.

But some in Vancouver’s smaller business sector say the news seems out of sync with what they are experiencing. Crystal Henrickson, community manager at startup consultantcy Invoke Labs, says there are advantages to being small.

“If you actually have something that you want to change, say, adopt, adapt, you have a voice,” she said in an interview Thursday. “You don’t have to wait for your senior manager.”

This agility allows companies that are just starting out to adapt to volatile business environments and fickle trends. And when failure happens, Ms. Henrickson said, it happens quickly and quietly, which allows entrepreneurs to pick up and start over where less manoeuvrable companies would still be leaning on the brakes.

Invoke Labs had its most high-profile success in helping to nurture HootSuite, a company that within the last five years has risen from tiny startup to thriving multinational. HootSuite now has over 300 employees worldwide and is fast approaching the Statistics Canada study’s limit for what is considered a “small business.”

The study blames the difference in productivity between large and small firms on gains in efficiency that come with size. Daniel Shapiro, dean of Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, said the Statistics Canada numbers may appear disconnected with current realities because the data only span the period between 2002 and 2008.

Since then, Canada has seen the toppling of tech giant BlackBerry Ltd. and the withering away of the manufacturing sector, which had been led by auto companies whose production moved south during the recession. “The problem with those studies is, of course, they’re dated the moment they appear,” he said.

However, Dr. Shapiro acknowledged the inability of smaller firms to take advantage of larger firms’ economies of scale remains a problem for the companies and the economy as a whole. “In general, there is a very strong positive correlation between the growth of labour productivity and the growth of income per capita,” he said. “It’s the growth of productivity that makes us wealthy in the end.”

He suspects there may be new efficiency gains to be made for small firms with the adoption of new technology like 3-D printing and increased computing power. “I’ve certainly thought about the notion that the 21st-century economy will consist of more, smaller firms that are actually very productive because they’re going to be very knowledge-based,” he said.

But one of Vancouver’s most prominent small-business owners takes issue with the the entire notion of productivity measurements. Kalle Lasn, founder of alternative magazine AdBusters and the man behind Occupy Wall Street, believes Statistics Canada is looking at all the wrong data.

“Like so many smaller businesses, we are creativity driven,” Mr. Lasn said. “We measure our productivity on how many times we can come up with a Buy Nothing Day or a TV Turn Off Week or an Occupy Wall Street. This idea of measuring some sort of GDP output feels like part of some old industrial model that doesn’t really apply to modern times any more.”

A Clinic’s Fight Against HIV/AIDS Turns To Genetic Testing

This post originally appeared on the BCBusiness Magazine website (and belongs to them, technically).

The Vancouver clinic that pioneered treatments for HIV/AIDS now takes on the effects of treatment itself

Dr. Montaner and Dr. Harrigan, two of the world’s leading experts on HIV treatment, both work at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. Image: B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS

Over the past two decades Dr. Julio Montaner and his team at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St Paul’s Hospital have helped turn what was once a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease. Now, with genetic testing, the researchers who have been on the front lines since the beginning are taking on the effects of the drugs themselves.

Since the early 1990s, the BC-CfE has decreased HIV/AIDS deaths by 90 per cent in B.C.  by developing new medications, combinations of medications, and viral testing.

As laboratory program director and head of genomics research at the BC-CfE, it was Dr. Richard Harrigan who pioneered one of the world’s first drug resistance testing programs in Vancouver, kick-starting the city’s response to the disease. Today, in partnership with Genome British Columbia and Genome Canada, the BC-CfE’s new $5-million program aims to advance genetic testing to further improve quality of life for patients and reduce the likelihood of transmission of drug-resistant HIV.

In what is known as “treatment-as-prevention,” a technique pioneered in Vancouver, drug cocktails decrease viral loads – and, consequently, the risk of transmission of HIV.  But harsh side effects from the medication can turn patients off their treatments, rendering them at once more susceptible to the disease itself and to transmitting it to others.

When Walter Hiebert was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, there were few drug options available.

“I was petrified,” confesses Hiebert. People around him were losing the ability to walk, shedding fat and muscle, and even dying of liver failure due to drug side effects. No treatments were without their consequences, and drug resistance was on the rise.

Fast forward two decades, and thanks to the personalized drug cocktails developed in Vancouver, Hiebert – now 56 – works full-time and is planning for his retirement.

Four separate tests are currently required to determine how the four different classes of drugs will affect a patient. The researchers at the BC-CfE have proposed a single, more efficient test.

“Instead of doing four tests, we’re going to put all these tests into one,” explains Dr. Harrigan, who is the project lead for the new program. “But also the new tests will have more sensitivity for picking up low levels of drug resistance within a person.”

What makes treatment increasingly complicated throughout a patient’s life is that the HIV virus is in a constant state of mutation, evolving to resist the effects of the medication.

Testing the genomes of both the virus and the patient can help fix the problem of side effects for the patient and of drug resistance in the virus. In the virus, genetic tests will reveal what drugs will be most effective. In the patients, genetic tests will help guide doctors to choose the least harmful drugs.

“The most significant threat to treatment-as-prevention programs would be if there were widespread transmission of drug-resistant virus,” says Dr. Harrigan. “We’re planning on not letting that happen.”

Reporting in Indigenous Communities

Reporting in Indigenous Communities

There’s a new website up – that’s right, the Internet has a new member! It even has some of my writing on it. My colleague Allison Griner (@allgriner) and I wrote our piece, “Eco-Partners: Fighting together for the health of an inlet” over the course of the last term. We worked with members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and environmentalists to see what their relationship looks like. Is one manipulating the other? Where do First Nations identity and environmental protection overlap – and where don’t they?

Unfollowing the downtown eastside

“We’re living at a time when attention is the new currency. Those who insert themselves into as many channels as possible look set to capture the most value.”
-Pete Cashmore, Founder of

Every notable corporation, public entity, and public person in Canada uses social media to some extent. Even my mother uses Facebook (relentlessly). Most people who do not engage in social media, it seems, do so out of protest or privacy concerns; we take it for granted that those who don’t use social media avoid it on purpose. Why shouldn’t we? The United Nations declared Internet access to be a basic human right two years ago, and as a G8 country, Canada can afford to provide it.

Not everyone has access, though, and if attention really is the new currency, we may be further impoverishing our poorest citizens.

Most of us have data available on our smartphones, so we can check in any time we like with Facebook, Twitter, or news apps. These are basic acts that we do sporadically all day, every day. Are people without smartphones or readily available computer terminals really missing out?

For the uses most people get from social media, the answer is probably no – the ability to chuckle at a cat meme is a low-priority accomplishment, in evolutionary terms, anyway. But when it comes to larger social issues, social media is more and more becoming the measure we use to tell who is switched on, and who doesn’t care.

Take Idle No More, for example. The First Nations-driven movement started with a hashtag, yet in a community with a massive Aboriginal representation, many people in the Downtown Eastside likely don’t know anything about it. The goals of the movement likely directly affect them, but their voices are silenced through a disconnection from the medium in which the movement lives. For most of us, social media is a luxury, but as it becomes central to our identity as citizens we need to make sure it is open to everyone.

Save On Meats and the Nosalgiashake

Stepping into Save On Meats is meant to feel like stepping into the diners of yesteryear. One red brick wall is lined with booths complete with aluminum-trimmed tables, while the opposite wall is one long wooden bar with soda-shop style padded stools. Hanging above the bar are the feature design element of the restaurant, cartoon representations of the food done in simple 50’s drive-in style.


The cartoons grace the cover of the menu as well, acting as branding along with the restaurant’s famous flying pig, which hangs outside in fluorescent pink, just as it did in 1957 when the butcher shop first opened. After a brief closure in 2009 when its original owner retired, it was reopened with the restaurant in 2011 by Gastown restaurateur Mark Brand.

This isn’t the East Hastings Street of the 1950s, however, when it was the upscale shopping hub of downtown – and Save On Meats reflects that. The butcher shop employs some of the disadvantaged East Hastings Street residents, people who find it difficult to find employment even in their own neighbourhood. More recently, Brand introduced sandwich tokens that customers can purchase to hand out to panhandlers instead of money. And overall, the restaurant’s menu, which features a handful of filling items for under five dollars, is designed to feed people for cheap.

Late on a Saturday or Sunday morning, this place can be a nightmare for a group trying to find a seat, but when four of us walked in on a Wednesday evening, we had our choice of booths. We chose the “VIP” booth at the back, which can seat around eight people, because we were expecting a few more to join us. We immediately flipped to the back of the menu, because we knew what we were there for: boozy milkshakes.

The restaurant has four signature alcoholic milkshakes, plus the option to create a custom combination. Wanting to maximize our milkshake flavour exposure, two of us settled on splitting two milkshakes: the Rumnana and the Warm Polar Bear, both $10. The Rumnana is a classic banana milkshake with a shot of white rum, while the Warm Polar Bear tastes like a candy cane, with peppermint schnapps and Kahlua. The Rumnana was the less rich of the two, which – trust me – is a good thing. By the end, the richness of both milkshakes was weighing me down and made the final sips almost a chore.  On top of the plate of bacon-chocolate cookies, the milkshakes certainly made the trip downtown worthwhile.

The décor and the menu recalled a time when curvy women in polka dots graced drive-in movie theatre screens and pin-up posters


When we finally managed to gather the willpower to stand up, the bill was a reasonable $25. As the last people to leave, we found that we were holding up progress on a photo shoot – voluptuous women with giant hairstyles had indeed been walking past us to and from the washroom-turned-changeroom for the past 20 minutes. It’s easy to see why Save On Meats would be an ideal shooting location for retro plus-sized clothing. The décor and the menu recalled a time when curvy women in polka dots graced drive-in movie theatre screens and pin-up posters. It may seem like a leap to say that that aesthetic can be revived with a milkshake, but the tall, frosty aluminum cups in which our drinks arrived could beg to differ.

An interview with Jodie Emery

An interview with activist Jodie Emery, whose husband, Marc Emery, is in prison in the United States for exporting marijuana seeds.

Jodie is a prominent cannabis activist in Canada, and has a show on the popular alternative television station, PotTV. The movement scored a win this month when Colorado and Washington states voted to legalize marijuana.

The interview

Development pushes out United We Can

Chris George waits in line outside of United We Can after a trip into the West End, his preferred hunting ground for recyclables. It’s a long trip, but “that’s why I’ve got my running shoes,” he says. (Photo: Jimmy Thomson)

This article first appeared on the UBC Master’s of Journalism website, The Thunderbird.

The hub of a recycling-based micro-economy in the Downtown Eastside is about to lose the home it’s had on East Hastings Street for nearly two decades.

If the development proposal by a social housing non-profitgroup is approved, Atira Development Society, which owns 41 E. Hastings St., will build a 169-unit project on the site and displace United We Can.

CEO Janice Abbott says the development will unavoidably bring change to the street, known for the chaotic market that has sprung up in front of the much-praised recycling centre that has provided employment for hundreds in the troubled neighbourhood.

“It will be difficult for folks to congregate on the block while construction is going on. Whether people will come back…who knows?” said Abbott, whose application for the project went in to the city on Nov. 2.

“United We Can is moving, so the folks that currently line up to get into United We Can will be somewhere else.  So I’m guessing it will be a less busy and visible block.”

While some may welcome that, not everyone is convinced that it will be an improvement. Some community groups, as well as the binners themselves, are wary of the gentrification that has further marginalized already vulnerable residents elsewhere in the Downtown Eastside. They worry that this project will have the same effect, ripping out what is, for many, the economic heart of the community.

Abbott insists that the project will add value to the community.

“Let me be clear that we are a community-based organization,” she said. “And it will remain a block for the community.”

As of yet, United We Can has nowhere to go. While the city and the recycling centre have been seeking an alternative for some time, no plans have been revealed. Abbott says she knows they are looking. It’s been difficult to find a site because the operation can’t be put in the catchment areas of private recycling centres elsewhere.

Chris George, who has been binning in Vancouver for three years, worries about the possibility of a more distant United We Can.

“It would be a problem for us,” he said.

Don’t say that! That’s bad karma, man.”

-“Ray,” binner for 15 years

Financial considerations

The proposed development at 41 E Hastings St would include street-level retail space, as well as 169 residential units.

While Abbott understands that the new development will transform the block, she believes it will be a change for the better.

Abbott is the CEO of both the development and the women’s resource branches of Atira, as well as its for-profit property management arm.

The building, valued at $2.2-million, is one of $33-million worth of land and buildings owned between the Atira Development Society and its parent group, the Atira Women’s Resource Society.

The proposed mixed-use building would contain 169 units, 70 per cent of which would be social housing – far more than any project besides those built by BC Housing. The new Woodward’s building, just a block and a half away, has only 27 per cent of the building’s total units devoted to subsidized housing.

The plan for rest of the space in the proposed development is uncertain.

According to the rezoning proposal filed with the city, the other 30 per cent of the building would be set aside for affordable home ownership. According to Abbott, however, financial considerations may interfere.

“It’s driven by the pro forma. At the end of the day, we need to borrow money to make this work, and so we need to find a lender who likes the way our financials worth. It may be 100 per cent rental.”

The moving sidewalk

The building’s current tenant,United We Can, is not just a business. Its influence spills out on to the street outside, with the whole block bustling with foot traffic and sidewalk sales.

For some, this congregation of people selling goods, lining up for the recycling depot, or simply lingering, is an eyesore. For others, it is essential.

Ivan Drury, a social activist with the Carnegie Community Action Project, believes that the volume of foot traffic makes that block safer for homeless people.

“It’s kind of an unregulated community centre,” he explains.

Drury is well known as a vehement opponent of many developments in the neighbourhood. This proposed zoning change is no exception.

“Regardless of the merits, any kind of market project there has the danger of driving up the value of land, proving that condos can be developed here in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, and warming the plate for speculators to … displace the thousands of really marginalized people here.”

Street vendors crowd the sidewalk despite the potential $250 fine for those without permits. Many of their goods, from harmonicas to strollers, are non-recyclables that have been salvaged from binning excursions.

Bruce Matinat, pushing a shopping cart heavy with about $25 in cans from Kitsilano, said that he often finds other items in the lanes that he frequents. On this particular day, he had a small collection of mirrors.

“I’ll probably sell those, too,” he said.

Binner: an urban scavenger, who makes a living collecting recyclables and other goods from around the city. Can often walk 10km or more in search of recyclables.

Binners unite

The users of United We Can also emphasize the importance of the location. It has been providing income and employment in the Downtown Eastside for 17 years since Ken Lyotier founded it.

The bins inside United We Can are full of recyclables of all kinds; there is often a lineup outside to get in, and a lineup inside for payment. (Photo: Jimmy Thomson)

The facility is situated among those who make the most use of it, and it is the only commercial recycling centre in the Downtown Eastside.

The central location has allowed United We Can, in the original entrepreneurial spirit of the business, to provide services beyond collecting recyclables.

Today, the recycling centre employs about 100 people, many of them former binners, as cashiers and in its spinoff laneway cleaning program.It can often serve as many as 700 binners in a day.

Its clients, however, are not limited to downtown in their search for recyclables.

“Our catchment is pretty broad,” says Lyotier, now retired. “People come from all over.”

One binner, who wished to only be identified as “Ray,” was distraught at the idea of a new location for United We Can.

“Don’t say that! That’s bad karma, man,” he exclaimed. “I live right here.”

For an interactive map of binning in Vancouver, click here.