Co-ops help tackle big problems – comment – Co-ops help tackle big problems
February 01, 2008
Carol Goar

Carol Hunter is too honest to pretend the sky is about to fall. She is bracing for a year of heavy clouds and stunted growth.

Hunter is executive director of the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA), the national organization representing the country’s 10,000 co-ops, credit unions and caisses populaires.

Five years ago, the association received $5 million from the federal government to assist local groups wishing to start new co-ops or strengthen existing ones. Ottawa backed that up with a $10 million fund, administered by its own Co-operatives Secretariat, to support innovative projects.

The initiative ends next month. Although it has helped create 135 new co-ops and bolster 1,000 emerging ones, its future is uncertain.

The federal Conservatives aren’t likely to kill it. The co-op movement has too many adherents in Alberta. What Hunter expects is a stand-pat, one-year extension.

While that certainly would be better than nothing, it would deny CCA’s members the opportunity to tackle some of the big problems facing the nation: the shortage of affordable housing, the demand for renewable energy, the gaps in the health-care system, the underemployment of immigrants, the depopulation of rural Canada and the grim conditions in many aboriginal communities.

The association is asking the government to expand its $15 million exploratory initiative into a $100 million long-term program, designed to unleash the potential of the sector.

“I just wish more Canadians knew about co-operatives,” Hunter said. “The model is relevant to so many issues.”

A co-operative differs from a conventional business in three key ways:

Its purpose is to meet the needs of its members, not maximize profits for its shareholders.

It is driven by social as well as economic concerns. Part of its raison d’être is to improve the quality of life of its community.

Any money it makes is plowed back into the business, invested in the community or shared among members.

It can operate in inhospitable market conditions. It does not need economies of scale. It does not have to produce quarterly earnings.

Canada was once a world leader in the co-operative movement. Grain elevators, owned by farmers’ co-operatives, dotted the Prairies. Cod processing plants, owned by fishermen’s co-operatives, were the mainstay of the Maritime economy. Every Quebec town had its caisse populaire. Everything from butter to life insurance was sold through co-operatives.

But many of these collective enterprises were swept aside by globalization. Others hunkered down, losing their pioneering spirit.

Today, especially in large urban centres, co-operatives are largely invisible. Consumers see only big box stores, big banks and big business.

Yet this is the very time Canada needs innovative forms of commerce, Hunter argues. The nation is striving to build a green economy, create sustainable jobs, make its service sector distinctive, revitalize rundown neighbourhoods and ensure its citizens can afford basic services.

That was the thinking behind Ottawa’s 2003 Co-operative Development Initiative.

The seed money allowed the CCA to provide training to individuals and groups willing to set up co-operatives, but unfamiliar with the legal and procedural requirements. It provided a catalyst for the creation of a network of established co-ops, willing to coach and support new entrants into the field. And it encouraged local leaders to engage in social entrepreneurship.

Hunter can’t point to any spectacular start-ups. That is not the way co-ops operate. First, the community has to be mobilized. Then a consensus has to be reached, money pooled and a solid plan drawn up.

Most of the enterprises fostered by the federal initiative are small: housing co-operatives, car-sharing co-operatives, renewable energy co-operatives, child-care co-operatives, home care co-operatives and retail co-operatives selling everything from building materials to locally grown food.

But every community needs those. Every economy needs invention and experimentation.

“The demand for help far exceeds the resources available,” Hunter said. “A one-year renewal would mean no expansion, no certainty.”

It wouldn’t be a disaster, she concedes, just a very sad lost opportunity.

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