At about this time of year, 33 years ago, I attended my first Marquis Project meeting.
Marquis was a new organization, still working on its charter and still without funding. Only about 10 people participated in that meeting to get ourselves organized and see how we could best fulfil our mission of connecting Brandon-Westman to the developing world. What those early Marquis supporters wanted to do was create the opportunity for "people who live under six feet of snow six months of the year" to make the world a better place — socially, economically and environmentally — through development projects in the "Global South" and education here at home.
A brief history of the Marquis Project would go something like this: A small organization in a mixed urban/rural area starts up, finds funding, spends a few years recruiting a membership and developing a strong base. Then it meets with success working in the school system and with local churches and community organizations, both in educating people to become more globally aware and in supporting community development projects in East Africa and Central America.
After 16 years of good works, the federal government pulls the plug on funding and Marquis downsizes but carries on due to strong local support, opens a fair trade store and continues to support rural projects in Tanzania.
Then, after a period of financial struggle and intermittent staffing, Marquis closes its store but, with provincial government support for its schools program, focuses on taking its message to young people and teachers.
As someone who has been intimately involved in Marquis over most of its history, I can say that the story is largely one of success. The number of people who’ve attended Marquis events, held memberships, made donations, borrowed learning materials and so on is beyond what could be expected from a small, largely rural group. The amount of funding that has been attracted and the sheer good that has been done are remarkable.
As well, the projects undertaken overseas have made a real difference to disadvantaged people. Marquis members have worked with Third World groups to help them market their fair trade goods globally and their agricultural produce locally, to start small businesses, to improve the status of women, to use more organic growing methods, to equip schools and cover students’ school and training fees, to build recreation facilities and more.
That story is even more interesting when told anecdotally. On many occasions, I’ve met people from across Canada and around the world who have heard of or been touched by Marquis.
Sitting on an airplane one day, my seatmate turned out to be a development worker whose comment was: "Oh yes, you’re the people who always take on projects in difficult countries" (Uganda, El Salvador and Nicaragua at the time).
A teacher friend of mine in Winnipeg once attended a conference in Switzerland of people of Germanic background (as he is) who work in developing countries and he discovered that the group they were speaking of admiringly was, of all things, the little Marquis Project in Brandon.
A final story is of a CIDA worker who came to evaluate Marquis and, after two days of visiting farmers, teachers and our board members, decided that our funding should be increased as he’d never seen such support for a development group outside of large cities like Toronto or Ottawa.
As we walked along Rosser Avenue to get lunch one day, a Brandon citizen stopped us on the street to write out a donation cheque (and I hadn’t arranged for this to happen!).
Today, Marquis is smaller than it once was, with a board of directors of nine people and a membership of about 100. An annual budget that once topped half a million dollars is now more like $100,000 or less.
Manitoba Education continues to support Marquis activity in Brandon-Westman schools while the relationship the organization has with community development projects in Tanzania continues to make a real contribution to people living around Lake Victoria. I’ve been proud to see two of my children visit that area on several occasions to work with people there and document the progress that has been made with our participation.
We’ve also been enriched by the relationships developed across the world. In my time at Marquis, I had the privilege of visiting our partners in a number of countries. I was struck by the great need in developing countries, but even more so by how hard people work to reach their goals of education and training for their children, good nutrition and health for their families, and dignified livelihoods via jobs and entrepreneurship.
While Marquis is not as visible in Brandon-Westman today — as there is no longer a storefront — the new more compact Marquis model is sustainable and active. Those who support the organization believe that our region of the province would be the poorer without a Marquis Project in some form, as one outlet for people’s desire to contribute to development and peace in the world.
You can connect with Marquis at marquisproject.com where there is an email address and phone number. To reconnect with the community, a newsletter and fundraiser are both in the works.
Marquis is as relevant today as it was a generation ago!
» Zack Gross is program co-ordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 17, 2012