THOUGHTS ON THE 2011 CHFC AGM

It has been many years since my first Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada AGM. Meetings have been held from Victoria to St. John’s, with stops in between in Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, London, Montreal, Winnipeg and many other places. I’ve had a change to visit parts of Canada I’d never otherwise see. While not the major reason for me to attend CHFC meetings, this has been a wonderful bonus. I’ve had a chance to sample the diversity of the Canadian experience in the company of people committed to the co-operative movement.  This has been a wonderful privilege.

This year’s AGM, a return visit to St. John’s, ended up being the most exhausting one I’ve attended. Close to a week after it ended, I still feel drained.  Perhaps age is catching up to me; perhaps it is withdrawal after being an active part of the leadership of CHF Canada and my return to the daily realities in the grassroots of the movement. I was present at the AGM as a member of CHF Ontario Council, a member of the Resolutions Committee and (due to my position as treasurer of CHF Ontario Council) a less visible role as a member of the CHFC Finance and Audit Committee. I didn’t attend workshops, either as a participant or as a leader, nor did I take a significant role in the debates on the floor of the AGM, both which I missed. It felt, at times, that I was not quite at the same event as most people there—like a ghost or an uninvited guest or the family member at a reunion that people can’t quite remember.

But I did attend meetings—of the Resolutions Committee, a joint CHFC Board/Ontario Council meeting and meetings of Ontario Council. I took part in meetings dealing with difficult process issues and others centred on exciting legislative possibilities. I had the opportunity to share a few words with people with a far longer history of active involvement in the co-op housing movement and with those who only recently joined a housing co-op. Being in the company of those who share a vision of a strong and inclusive co-operative movement reminds me that I am a part of a far larger movement than I sometimes realise.

I was delighted with the election of Michelle Maldonado to the CHF Board as an at-large director. She wasn’t born when I moved into my co-op and is part of successful leadership renewal in the co-op housing movement.

There were disappointments. I am worried about how few resolutions came forward from CHFC members. The AGM should be a place of debate, an opportunity to shape the values and direction of the movement in a hard to duplicate forum. It is a place where concerns expressed in private about policies and programmes should be brought forward. Perhaps few members taking advantage of the AGM to bring forward concerns and dreams is a temporary phenomena, with the distance to St. John’s discouraging participation and major issues already being dealt with through resolutions sponsored by the Board, Ontario Council or various CHFC committees. Perhaps it’s a sign of change in the way activism is expressed, with discussions occurring informally and being acted upon in less obvious ways. Perhaps CHFC is in transition, with direction coming less from a coalition of local activists and more from institutional leadership. Whatever the forces shaping this change, I still find it worrisome.

Related to this is my concern over lack of membership participation. Approximately 1/3rd of the possible membership of CHFC were represented at the AGM. There is concern being expressed at the low turn-out of voters in various federal, provincial and municipal elections. Low participation in the democratic structures of the co-op movement is more of a problem in the long term. It is in the organisations of civil society that democratic values are most effectively expressed. Low rates of participation within an organisation that exists to meet the needs of its members is worrisome. There are some good reasons for lack of participation this year—-specifically cost and distance. But reasons haven’t been truly tested. Next year the AGM is in Niagara Falls, much closer to where the majority of CHFC’s members are. I hope that there is significant growth in member participation, with at least 50% + 1 voting members registered. Efforts to improve various electronic forms of participation is essential in helping weave the organisation together, but something is lost when direct face-to-face interaction is eroded. It is harder to avoid accountability in person.

Few resolutions from CHFC members and smaller than ideal levels of participation don’t make me fearful for the organisation but they do make me concerned that some of the real strengths of the co-operative movement, particularly active member/owner participation in the life of their organisations, is becoming attenuated over time.

It is the non-governance aspects of the AGM that dominate my emotional response to CHF AGM and makes me want to continue to be a part of this movement. There were directors retiring that I’ve work with for years I may never see again. I had a wonderful moment running into a first time delegate who was someone I hadn’t seen since my wedding (27 years ago). There were exSCMers in attendance who, like me, came to the co-op movement as a way of continuing to explore what it means to be a person of faith. There were people present who remembered me from coffee houses and anarchist gatherings and church services and picket lines. There were strangers who talked to me about CHFC finances and others who were excited about the ideals of a co-operative community—the practical commonality of sharing resources to meet individual needs brought us all together.

My last morning at the CHF AGM was spent at an Ontario Council meeting, where I was re-elected treasurer. This puts me automatically on the CHFC Finance and Audit Committee. I have meetings to look forward to and a movement to share skills and visions within.

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