I am a bit later on my reflections on the ON COOP conference than I had expected. I am still pondering all the ramifications of a comment made by Anne-Marie McInnis, Manager, Policy and Research, with the Rural and Co operatives Secretariat of the federal government. Her statement “Be careful of the things you allow to become normal” really struck home. When I first moved to Toronto I would phone for an ambulance when I can across someone passed out on the street. Now I walk by. Verbal abuse by emergency services personal for wasting their time with drunks, complaints from those passing by of wasting tax payer money and a growing callousness of spirit have convinced me that it is okay to pass by those in need. Their problems have become normal and therefore I have diminished.
McInnis’ statement changed the way I moved through the ON COOP conference and still haunts me. In addition to those I now walk past on the streets of Toronto, what other problems, both big and small, have I dismissed as normal, as just the way things are? Do I accept unfair corporate practices, products from low wage sources, too much packaging with the goods I buy—the lists of problems in the world I once spoke out strongly on seems long. Is it my age that has quieted me or am I merely a reflection of the age I live in?
And yet, in the midst of all things that I have become quiet on, that I have let slide, I find that co-operatives still inspire me. There is something in the entire co-operative movement that I find cannot be made normal, mundane or easy to overlook. There are problems with individuals, but the co-operative movement and the many structures and expressions that co-operatives have continue to challenge and inspire me.
It is only at such a gathering of the broader co-op sector that I have the opportunity to meet with anarchists involved with bicycle networks and food buying clubs, socialists from small local worker co-ops and executives of major insurance and financial institutions coming together to share experiences, skills and idealism, being motivated by the same set of principles. The world around me works hard to convince me that there is no real interest in individuals coming together to share their resources to meet common needs—we are either atomised or collectivised. But in the co-operative world I am reminded to stop treating as normal the competitive, divisive normative world and see that there is a concrete and realistic alternative that can put food on our tables, clothes on our back and roofs over our heads, offers meaningful work and move through the competitive marketplace with confidence that different values do work in the harsh environment of the capitalist marketplace.
The co-op world is small. I had someone come up to me to say “I must be Sandra’s brother. I have a family resemblance”. As she was from a co-op from my home town, that was indeed a good assumption. I got to renew acquaintances there with people I met in the back of paddy wagons at demonstrations in the 1980s and those whose requests for equity finance I reviewed in the last twelve months. We came together to look at the future of the co-operative movement, to look at the role of education in co-operative governance, how to finance co-op start-ups and to reach into our personal pockets to support training for the next generation of co-op leaders. We ate cheese from a co-op dairy, drank fair trade coffee from a co-op distributer and took part in a silent auction for wine from a co-op vineyard. An example of a successful alternative economic model easy to overlook in a grocery store—the Gay Lea Dairy co-op comes to mind—became the norm. A better world is possible because it is already with us; we just need to remember this when the broader world seems overwhelming in its simplicity.
I ended up leaving before the dinner/gala—age and lack of sleep taking a toll so I didn’t get to see people I know honoured by a movement I care so much about. But I did have a chance to reweave myself into the co-operative community, even if I didn’t last into the night.
I left feeling humbled by the movement that has let me in and helps give my life shape and meaning. Co-ops by existing make the world a better place to be and I continue to try and spread the co-op message.
I also left wondering about what I am not seeing in the world, what I am treating as normal. The broader world doesn’t see co-ops in its midst. I have learned to treat homelessness as normal. I turn away from those with outstretched hands. I don’t see the hands of the prison labourers in the factories where the goods at the bargain store are made. I don’t hear the voices of the children farm labourers when I reach for a chocolate bar. The normal world I walk through does have the structures of the better world woven through it that I rarely see. The normal world I walk through does have the vulnerable and exploited woven through it that I rarely see.