A Remedy for Living: What Fair Trade in an Edmonton Cafe Taught Me

“CHANA MASALA!”

Remedy Café seemed like an informal language school as Indian and Pakistani food orders were increasingly yelled out.

Sohail Zaidi, better known as Zee, is Remedy’s creator. He sat calmly before me, clearly used to all the noise and bustle. “The orders are yelled out because then you hear it and you learn how to say the names. People become educated and they know what dahl is instead of calling it lentils,” he said.

Abra King makes a chai at Remedy’s downtown location on Jasper Avenue.  Many employees have worked at Remedy for years. To Zee, his employees, like Abra King, are the next generation of business leaders. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

Abra King makes a chai at Remedy’s downtown location on Jasper Avenue.
Many employees have worked at Remedy for years. To Zee, his employees, like Abra King, are the next generation of business leaders. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

He continued to tell me about the café’s most popular feature, its worst kept secret: Remedy’s chai. “My chai is made from thirty-five spices,” the coarse spices struggled to slip through his fingers, getting caught as he passed them from one hand to the other. Chewing on a dark brown bead of cardamom, Zee encouraged me to follow his lead. It tasted unexpectedly like mint as it dissolved in my mouth. Zee continued his lesson, breaking down his chai’s ingredients even further.

“All of the herbs are organic, no preservatives,” he began. “The teas come from Kenya, India, and Bangladesh. I always make sure it’s Fair Trade and organic.” The use of Fair Trade and organic products encourages customers to share in creating a better world in Zee’s opinion.

***

Days earlier, I had left Blush Lane Organics (a grocery store specializing in global Fair Trade and Albertan organic produce) for the first time. Both hands swung bags full of Fair Trade and Albertan organic produce like Holy Crap: the world’s most amazing breakfast cereal (pun intended), Cheeky: Be the Sassy Banana salted toffee and banana organic dark chocolate bar (perhaps no pun intended?), and a couple of green mangoes the size of the Hulk’s fist.

A profile of Michael Zelmer, an activist for Fairtrade who explains the connection between buying local and Fair Trade products as this: “When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think ‘it’s from nearby so that makes it local’. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.” Photo:Fairtrade International Canada

A profile of Michael Zelmer, an activist for Fairtrade who explains the connection between buying local and Fair Trade products as this: “When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think ‘it’s from nearby so that makes it local’. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.” Photo:Fairtrade Canada

When I visited the store that day, I’d chastised myself for not bringing reusable bags with me. But in the end, there was no need for worry. The paper bags they provided me with were certified triple threats: renewablecompostable, and recyclable. Those words and all the ones which stood out on boxes and containers in the store, spoke of a current movement to change the world by producing sustainable, healthy, and overall fair food. As I criss-crossed through narrow aisles, I couldn’t translate the language I was reading all around me. How did the words fit within the narrative of my own life?

A few days later, an appeal for me to not give up on Fair Trade stood out from a chalkboard sign, arguing: Buy Fair Trade because it will improve the world! The words were proudly displayed by the front doors of Ten Thousand Villages on Whyte Avenue for all to see.

In the late 1940s, an American named Edna Ruth Byler — the founder of Ten Thousand Villages — felt that it was time for the principles of business to change after she’d travelled to Puerto Rico and saw unfair business practices put into place there. Edna returned to her home with a vision of how business profits should be used to make people stronger and to weaken injustice and poverty. Edna began a business selling the crafts of artisans from around the world in her basement, and large profits were sent back to the original creators.

Now, Fairtrade International [which is different from the term “Fair Trade” as this refers to the movement to buy products created through sustainable, fair business practices and “Fairtrade” refers to the organization itself] follows a similar message as Edna. Fairtrade works to decrease the power of the middleman who plays a part in getting products from the farmer’s fields to our kitchen table. By decreasing or even eliminating the middleman’s role, farmers and artisans worldwide can have a larger share of the profits they earn with their products.

Messages like the one in front of Whyte Avenue’s Ten Thousand Villages are promoted throughout Edmonton businesses. The owners are people like Edna with a vision to make their community a better place. I was rushing to meet one of them, who owned a cafe with “Edmonton’s worst kept secret” as the businesses’ twitter account boasted.

***

The world had been brought into Remedy café with images of nature on its vibrant walls. The pictures were close ups of purple and yellow Hawaiian flowers taken by Zee himself. At other times in the year, local artists have exhibited their work on his café’s walls – just another way that Zee supports local business.

Remedy’s interior décor is also a reflection of Zee’s worldly experiences. This became clearer as he continued talking about his life moving through dusty alleyways in Pakistan, to cramped apartment living in Germany, and finally, dreaming big while looking at skyscrapers from the driver’s seat of his yellow New York taxi — all these experiences eventually lead him to settle down in Edmonton, Alberta where he bought a sandwich cafe and turned it into Remedy.

While we laughed and contemplated his coming of age story, Zee explained why he loved to travel so much as a young man. “Travelling teaches you so much…when you see how people live elsewhere, you’re thankful for your life and the people in it.” Zee has been drawn to the Fair Trade movement’s philosophy because he himself was once less fortunate. “I know what poverty is and how hard people work, so I totally support Fair Trade.”

Talk of poverty soon turned to his disappointment in inequality between people in the world who are all trying to make a living. After all, as he expressed, “we all bleed the same”.

***

Despite our common trait of being warm blooded humans, it doesn’t stop people from taking advantage of one another.

Michael Zelmer, an activist and communications coordinator with Fairtrade Canada, told me excitedly over the phone a couple days after I met Zee that Fair Trade is meant to help people live lives where poverty doesn’t dictate the quality of life they lead. I asked Michael if he thought being involved in Fair Trade made it less likely for a farmer or artisan to be abused by unfair business practices. The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

There’s no clear way of knowing, Michael responded. However, there was a silver lining. Michael then explained that Fair Trade could never become a new “dictator” to farmers and artisans like the middleman by controlling farmer’s resources and opportunity to one day become powerful in their own right.

Butter chicken and rice with a cup of Remedy’s chai. With Fairtrade’s help, profits from plantations and farms where the teas and spices are cultivated are shared equally amongst farmers. Wages have to be either equal to or higher than the regional standard. It’s hoped that the regional standards will be improved and influenced by the Fairtrade model. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

Butter chicken and rice with a cup of Remedy’s chai.
With Fairtrade’s help, profits from plantations and farms where the teas and spices are cultivated are shared equally amongst farmers. Wages have to be either equal to or higher than the regional standard. It’s hoped that the regional standards will be improved and influenced by the Fairtrade model. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

“The key thing to understand,” Michael stressed, “is that it’s [Fairtrade’s mission] about allowing farmers [and artisans] to become powerful above and beyond Fair Trade…. The relationship to people… is that we’re supporting them, and not in a charitable manner with donations, but by making smart choices. We may be paying a bit more for those smart choices but they support all these transformative things that are happening out there in the world.”

At Remedy while witnessing smiles and laughter shared over hot drinks and food, I could already see some of that change happening.

The café was its own community. The world was reinvented once you entered through its front door. Hipsters, Chanel accessorized women sitting next to proud mothers of soccer kids, solemn studious types intently staring at glowing laptop screens — all of them surrounded me, eating food made with Fair Trade and even local organic ingredients. Regardless of whether or not the customers knew that they were tasting Fair Trade inspired recipes, they were still supporting a farmer somewhere in the world simply by consuming Remedy’s food.

I finished my visit to the café by drinking some chai and eating butter chicken. During the meal, my idea of Fair Trade shifted from the thought of making the world a better place to the practice of living better in the moment.

As the scents of garlic and cumin wafted towards me and the taste of minty cardamom lingered in my mouth, some of Zee’s final words crossed my mind: I think people appreciate the little things we do.

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