I am trying to remember my first co-op meeting as an individual. There are very early memories of attending meetings of the Algoma Steel Workers Credit Union with my father. I was involved in efforts to develop a food buying club back when I was at Algoma. I was on Queen’s AMS when CMHC swept in and took down Elrond College. I remember giving money to the Worker Ownership Development Foundation which was working out of a United Church on Danforth. I made deposits at Bread and Roses Credit Union for CMCP and ANVA. Co-operatives kept touching my life for many years.
Somehow in the mid to late 80s a shift occurred. Instead of touching my life from time to time, co-operatives became a key part of my identity. I started looking for work in the co-op sector; I moved into a housing co-op; I joined food co-ops and worker co-ops and credit unions and energy co-ops; I began running for regional, provincial and national co-operative boards—I began woven into the co-operative sector.
Being a part of the co-operative world has resulted in my travelling from Victoria to St. John’s, conducting workshops, raising points of order from microphones, examining investment holdings and sharing in decisions about what venture will be funded. For several years I have attended a gathering once held at the Atrium in Guelph and now at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington—the On Co-op (formerly CCA Ontario) Conference. Unlike most co-op gatherings where I have a formal role I am at the periphery. I attend opening sessions and workshops; once I even stayed for the evening gala/awards event (the year that the Canadian Alternative Investment Co-operative received an award).
What brings me back year after year is that this is a gathering of the clans. Once a year I share a few hours with those who have devoted their whole lives for the co-operative movement and those making their first venture into an odd community. And it is an odd community. Senior officials of co-operatives with hundreds of millions in assets join with those who depend on a government subsidy to be able to afford their homes in celebrating a common vision of a world where people share their time and resources to jointly meet individual and community needs. I meet people every year that came from the Alliance for Non Violent Action or The Student Christian Movement or the Public Interest Research Group network, which helped form my approach to the world and those from business schools and traditional businesses that find common ground in figuring out the best way to jointly meet human needs.
This On Co-op conference was structurally the same as other years—-the morning devoted to speakers with workshops in the afternoon. In the morning we had a change to hear three good speakers. Networking opportunities were woven into the lunch hour. The day ended with concurrent workshops.
Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance, appeared via internet hook-up., and gave the key-note speech. She focused on 2012, the International Year of Co-operatives. She gave a global perspective on our movement and encouraged participants to use 2012 to share our good news and our shared vision. It is sometimes hard to find common ground across co-op sectors (co-op housing is very different from credit union and a community medical co-operative); Dame Green has devoted her life to not only weaving together co-operatives across sectors but around the world.
She was followed by Mike Colledge of Ipsos Reid. While not the most dynamic speaker, his presentation of the results of a recent survey on the attitudes of Canadians towards co-operatives was informative. It helped to put our movement into the broader Canadian context. I was struck by the comment that the most cynical people in regards to co-operative are often the most knowledgeable about co-operatives. This strikes home as those who are the most familiar with co-operatives will be dealing with co-operatives both at their best and at their worst.
The final speaker of the morning, John Restakis, was challenging and moving. He is the author of Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital. Much of his presentation consisted of extracts from the book. His illustrations were fascinating. The difference between the way that the U.S. responded to Katrina and the people of Sri Lanka responded to a massive tsunami gave a clear distinction between the values of a co-operative community and one of a competitive one. We were reminded that co-operatives are truly revolutionary, capable of transforming the world through the combination of practicality and idealism. He drew clear links between the world that a co-operative society could build and the visions behind much of the Occupy movement.
Lunchtime was an opportunity to meet with co-op members from across Ontario and across sectors. As I moved from energy co-ops seeking investors to a Gay Lea travelling museum I got to talk to people who talk about offering statements without a blink, to reconnect with others from the libertarian left movements of 70s and to sample fair trade dark chocolate.
I spent the afternoon at a workshop on Assessing Capital. This may sound dull, but co-ops do depend on finding money to start up and to expand. Whether this is done by people reaching into their own pockets to start up a small cooking co-op or through mortgages to buy the buildings for a housing co-op or selling bonds to build a wind or solar power facility, money has to come from somewhere for such dreams to come to life.
As is always the case, I leave these co-op gatherings encouraged and hopeful. Co-operatives for me are a way of transforming and renewing society. Through co-operatives people can share in controlling their economic and social realities. There is something spiritual in co-operatives as well. It isn’t an accident that people like Father Moses Coady and Toyohiko Kagawa linked their faith to the development of co-operative communities. In the co-operative movement I am connected to a web of dreamers and practical folk who share a vision of a better, transformed and transforming world for all.