I am immersed in the co-operative world. I live in a housing co-op. I work for two co-ops. I am a member of a worker co-op. I am insured with Co-operators and do my banking with Alterna. I support alternative energy production through membership in The Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative and Countryside Energy Co-operative. I sit on the boards of an investment co-operative, four co-op land trusts and a co-op staff association. I expect the colours of the co-op rainbow are infused into every aspect of my being. It takes a lot for the co-op world to surprise me, but I was surprised at the Credit Union Central of Canada’s Annual General Meeting where I could be found as the week of May 5th began. I was surprised to hear talk of social justice in the heart of a financial world and was equally surprised at the real and ongoing struggle to ensure that the credit union movement tried to bring to life the co-op principles. Who would think that bankers would care about such things? And these people did. People who don’t blanch at the idea of a billion dollars in shared assets were expressing concern about co-op development in the developing world; people who deal comfortably with the moneyed of the world truly wondered about how to empower those without a voice of their own.
Younger credit union leaders (well, those under 40) were the prime motivators of discussions on the co-op principles and the future of the Canadian credit union movement. Part of this was pragmatic—if the credit union movement is to have a real viable future it has to be distinguished in the financial world somehow. But most of this focus was truly idealistic. There are a number of different ways to be a presence in the commercial life of a community. Being a presence that truly wants to be responsive to member-owners; wanting to promote ways of broadening the base of member-owners; wanting to find ways of convincing people that pooling their resources within an organisation under their communal control is something wonderful and socially transforming—-even if the credit union is (comparatively) large and seemingly remote from the daily lives of the members—-the credit union movement truly tries to be a living part of a ever transforming community.
Being very new to the credit union leadership world, I was quiet. Unlike when I’ve attended Ontario Worker Co-op Federation or Co-op Housing Federation of Canada meeting, I sat quietly in the midst of discussions and didn’t ask questions in response to reports. I would have liked to have asked questions about why agencies within Credit Union Central were sold to non-co-operatives. Being told that resources just couldn’t be found within the co-op sector wasn’t a completely satisfactory answer. However, as a stranger within the world I let the moment pass.
I was also intimidated by the massive size of the credit union movement. In 1900 the credit union movement in Canada had 132 members in one credit union. Now in Canada there are 5.1 million credit union members with total credit union assets of just under $105 billion. It took me years to not be intimidated by balance sheets and income statements of a 75 unit housing co-op. What the credit union world deals with makes me realise that I’ve merely wadded in the shallows of what can be brought together by people consciously bringing together their personal and financial resources to achieve a common goal.
To me, the co-operative world is one where my faith and ideals come together. It is a tapestry of different efforts to bring individuals together to openly and willingly share what they have with others in order to achieve a common goal. Power is shared as are resources. Parents can have places for their children to be cared for; workers can have real control over their working lives; new energy sources can be built; and people can share their financial resources to do what banks do, but for the community and not primarily for the needs of the corporation.
The Credit Union Central of Canada is not a grassroots organisation (which means since I have attended one of its AGMs I’m not as grassroots as I see me as). Yet it seriously tries to remain true to its roots in a small gathering in Levis, Quebec in 1900. It may describe itself as a trade association. But those that share in its leadership are co-operators. Observing them through my usual cynical mask, I found myself in the midst of people motivated by a deep desire to bring the co-op principles to life in the most difficult part of the co-op movement in which do so—when the money lies, where the temptations of traditional capitalism are so very loud.