I often attend meetings where I feel an outsider, someone not particularly a part of what is happening. I’ve had this feeling at labour and church conferences, at peace movement gatherings, at environmental group forums and many family gatherings. However, I have always found myself feeling at home at Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada gatherings. I don’t know why this is the case—but it does astound me.
My attendance at the CHFC AGM is a long standing habit—I’ve attending conferences from St. John’s to Victoria. I’ve at times served in formal positions, such as on the CHFC Finance Committee, being a workshop leader and some time on the CHF Ontario Council. Most of the time my presence has been that of an informed participant with definitively minority perspectives on issues.
As a fiscal conservative, anything that threatens the stability and viability of the endowment fund brings me to a microphone. As a person against borders, anything that implies people without legal status aren’t to be treated as equal co-op members brings me to a microphone. As a mainstream environmentalist, the sector subsidised auto insurance plan is something I’m not quiet about either. As someone who sees co-operatives as an alternative to traditional corporate structures, anything that encourages co-operatives to be see themselves as an extension of either government or for-profit enterprise grates on my nerves.
And yet, despite that fact that I am rarely able to move CHFC and its members in directions I’d like it to go, I do feel far more comfortable in the midst of the gathered co-op housing movement members who disagree with me than I often feel in the midst of those whose views are closer to mine. This isn’t because I’m always treated with respect—I’ve been booed on more than one occasion and there are a few people so irritated at my efforts to draw a distinction between co-op housing and government priorities that they can’t easily be civil in my presence (as a lapsed NDPer, my betrayal is perhaps seen as something personal). But even when there are definitive barriers between myself and the majority of those present at a CHF AGM, I don’t leave feeling unheard or disrespected (my ideas might be disrespected but I’m not).
This can’t be merely because CHFC is a gathering of co-operators. I never had the same sense of being at home at a credit union, food co-op or worker co-op federation meeting. And it can’t be because of shared values—with the exception of some Student Christian Movement gatherings (and the relationship between the SCM and the co-op housing movement has been very close at times), I’ve not felt the sense of common purpose that I do at CHFC gatherings.
There does seem to be something truly unique in the Canadian co-op housing movement. Perhaps it is the shared experience of living in what is both a community under siege and a successful example of what can happen when people from truly diverse backgrounds share their knowledge, skills, resources and dreams to achieve a common goal. Perhaps it is 70 or so years of a living tradition of people thing globally and acting locally. Perhaps it is because we have seen the limits of grassroots democracy and yet find the process life enhancing.
This is something wonderfully challenging about the co-op housing movement—it is a movement within which I live and work. I can’t figure out why I find myself so comfortable within the movement, but it is certainly a delight to be able to be a part of its life.