Canada's co-operative movement is on the rise

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As an American co-op activist, I've always looked up to the much more robust and successful Canadian co-op movement. In 2011, I was finally able to meet many of the people behind Canada’s movement when I visited Winnipeg.

I came to the city in order to share Co-opoly: The Game of Co-operatives with my co-op allies up north. (Co-opoly is a project of the worker co-op I am a member of -- The Toolbox for Education and Social Action.) During this visit, though, I was amazed to learn all that the Canadian movement truly had to offer my fellow American co-operators.

 A growing movement

 Upon returning to the United States, one of the primary lessons I brought home was how the Canadian co-op movement was able to grow and thrive in spite of the global economic downturn.

Like most countries, Canada is suffering from the effects of the Great Recession: government austerity for working people while pushing forward privatization efforts and propping up major corporations. Yet, this may be the very reason Canadians are turning towards a different way of getting by. Rather than depending on a disinterested government and corporations only invested in the bottom line, everyday people are working together through co-operative efforts.

Co-ops are businesses and organizations that are democratically owned and operated. Every co-op is owned by a specific membership, whether it's workers, consumers, producers, and so forth. Each owner only has one share and one vote in the organization. During the good times, these co-op members share the benefits equally; and in the hard times, they share the burdens equitably. There are co-op coffee shops, print shops, artisan stores, farms, grocery stores, and much more.

Erwan Bouchaud is the Project Manager of the Manitoba Cooperative Community Strategy, whom I met while visiting Winnipeg. He believes the current social and economic unrest in Canada is opening up greater opportunity for the co-operative movement, and he sees this as a part of a larger global trend.

"With the Occupy movement, the Indignados movement, Bank Transfer Day, combined with the fair trade, the organic and the eating local movements, and, at a larger level, the Arab Spring, the red square movement with Quebecois students … it seems that all these changes have created a momentum. People might be less afraid of changing their habits, and start looking for alternatives, more local, more human, more sustainable."

Donna Balkan is the Communications Manager for the Canadian Co-operative Association, and she agrees, highlighting the fact that Canada's co-op movement is currently on the ascent -- despite the faltering global economy.

"Canadian co-operatives -- including credit unions -- have a total membership of about 18 million, the highest it has ever been,” Balkan said. In fact, her organization estimates that at least one in four adult Canadians are co-op members. "But what's most interesting about the growth of the co-operative movement is how co-ops are now emerging in different sectors of the economy -- for example, renewable energy, home care, transportation, tourism and recreation, etc."

Why Canada needs the co-op movement

Recently, the Harper government has threatened the future of the Canadian co-op movement by cutting funds to the Co-operative Development Initiative. Despite this major hurdle, the movement is still growing and receiving support from some provinces as well as universities and other sources. The reason for this is that Canadians need co-ops.

As a result of Donna Balkan's long experience in the co-operative world, she has come to believe that many Canadians join co-ops because they are institutions that put people before profits; something that is greatly desired in today's shifting economy. 

"At a time when a growing number of Canadians are concerned about such issues as environmental sustainability, ethical business practices and economic democracy, joining co-ops are a way for them to support businesses that put their money where their principles are," she said.

Dru Oja Jay, a co-op activist and author, illustrates this sentiment by pointing out that there have been a number of studies that prove co-ops survive longer than the traditional business models. As an example, a 2008 study by Quebec's government showed that 62 per cent of new co-ops in the province were still alive after five years. Traditional business models, however, had a 5 year survival rate of 35 per cent -- a staggering drop off. This demonstrates that co-operatives are a fundamentally more sustainable part of Canada's economy than traditional businesses.

On top of this is the fact that co-ops contribute much more to the well-being of the communities they call home. 

"When you have collective ownership and a democratic system," Jay said, "it doesn't make you perfect, but it definitely makes you more likely to integrate community input, work on concerns like environmental conservation -- or work on issues of social or economic marginalization. Whereas companies that start to lose money will usually cut jobs and sell off assets, co-operatives are more likely to tough it out and find solutions that play to their strengths, which in many cases includes higher community support."

What the U.S. co-op movement can learn from Canada

 Melissa Hoover of the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-operatives believes that the American co-op movement has much to gain from the U.S.'s neighbors up north.  "We have already learned so much from our allies at the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation, who have generously shared wisdom, models, and their history with us," she told me over e-mail. Canadians have provided Americans with their best practices on topics ranging from democratic processes to building university curricula for co-ops. 

Though I've always known the Canadian movement is much more vibrant than the American one, the full extent didn't truly hit home until I interacted with it in person when I brought Co-opoly to Winnipeg. What amazed me especially was the country's institutional support for co-ops. In many provinces, on the federal level, in universities, in new and pending legislation, and on the ground -- co-ops often had support. And no matter how modest this support was, it was far more than can be found in the United States -- which is often virtually non-existent. When I returned home from Canada, this was the lesson I brought back with me: we had to grow the American movement on the grassroots level while also making co-ops a part of our institutions.

Despite Harper's recent blow to Canadian co-ops, it's apparent that the movement isn't going anywhere. We Americans will continue to be inspired by the success of Canadian co-op activists. 


Brian Van Slyke is a worker-owner at The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, which produces and distributes Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook.



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