The Marquis Project, Brandon-Westman’s international development organization, turns 35 years old at its annual general meeting at Brandon University’s Elephant Room on June 19. I was only 30 when fellow Sun columnist David McConkey and I got involved in the committee that initiated the organization back in 1979.
While Marquis has had a profound impact on my family and I over my 25 years as executive director and years since as a board member, what is exciting is that many other Manitoba families and many families around the world have also benefited from the work of one relatively small group in one corner of a Canadian province.
Marquis started off small, with maybe 30 members and just one staff person and then grew with federal funding support in the 1980s and ’90s to a height of 500 members, a half-million-dollar budget, a hectic educational program in Brandon and rural Manitoba, and community development projects in East Africa and Central America. After the mid-’90s, as federal funding declined rapidly, Marquis was one of very few Canadian community-based international groups to survive and carry on, albeit on a smaller scale, thanks to a fair trade shop, Worldly Goods, and robust grassroots support from membership.
In recent years, a provincial Department of Education grant has been Marquis’ financial mainstay, enabling the organization to work with about 1,500 Westman students each year, learning about global issues. In past lean times, it is humbling how individual families have stepped up to guarantee lines of credit, offer long-term no interest loans (and then refuse to be paid back!) and leave behind generous bequests. This year, the organization will celebrate at its AGM the attainable goal of increasing its programming and being debt-free by year’s end.
It could be argued that certain events and organizations help to put any town or region "on the map." The Brandon Wheat Kings are an example of this. So is the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair. And there are many others. One of those is the Marquis Project. A friend once shared with me that while she was attending a medical meeting in Toronto, people said, "Oh yes, you’re from Brandon, where the Marquis Project is!"
Topping that, a Winnipeg teacher told me that he attended a conference in Geneva and people asked him about Marquis. A B.C. colleague, sitting in a Frankfurt airport, got talking with someone next to her and mentioned fair trade — and the Brandon connection came up again.
Marquis is also well-known in towns and villages overseas where it has delivered its funding and programs, working with partners in the developing world to improve agriculture, create employment and support active citizenship. Most recently, the local Fair Trade Committee and our city council put Brandon on the map when the city became Canada’s 19th designated Fair Trade Town on May 20.
Over the years, the Marquis Project has won numerous awards, including twice receiving the Excellence in Sustainable Development Award from the Manitoba Round Table and once the Premier’s Voluntary Service Award in the Organizational Category. While my few trips overseas to visit our partners were always memorable, I also have very fond memories of our educational work in rural and northern Manitoba communities.
In a 10-day autumn period many years ago, a couple of us spoke in Dauphin, The Pas, Swan River, Flin Flon, Thompson, Lynn Lake, Leaf Rapids and more, often on snowy roads that transitioned into harvest as we headed back south. This was not a lot different from a return trip from Central America visiting our projects one year where we flew from hot, tropical weather to a -30 C winterscape in one day.
Marquis was always, and continues to be, "the little organization that could." Running into a federal government official on a flight one day and having introduced myself, he said, "Oh yes, you’re the people who take on the tough jobs."
So there is ample reason to mark 35 years of the Marquis Project. While the organization definitely has a younger look to its volunteer base these days — many of whom don’t know too much about past adventures — it is exciting to see a new generation embrace the quest to reach out beyond our backyard to the rest of the world. Being under six feet of snow six months of the year shouldn’t be a deterrent!
Happy birthday, Marquis!
» Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC) and is a former executive director of Brandon’s Marquis Project.