Note for a more coherent co-operative presentation – Fair Trade Fair for Global Justice

Note for a more coherent co-operative presentation
Saturday, April 26, 2016
Fair Trade Fair for Global Justice
Donway Covenant United Church
230 The Donway West, Toronto, Ontario M3B 2V8

Thanks for inviting me to lead a workshop on co-operatives. I have been active in various expressions of the Canadian co-operative movement for over 25 years. From serving on the boards of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada and the Canadian Alternative Investment Co-operative to being a member/owner of Ganesh Community Development Co-operative to being the executive director of CoAction Staff Association , which is a co-operative that provides services to its members who are staff of housing co-operatives, I have worked and volunteered in three of the five major areas of co-operatives in Canada—housing, financial and worker co-operatives. I am not directly involved in insurance co-operatives or related mutual societies nor am I active in consumer co-operatives, even though I am supportive of their work and purchase insurance through Co-operator’s Insurance.

What I plan to do is talk for a little while about co-operatives and why I think this is a good time for co-operatives. Hopefully my comments will inspire some questions and debate.

I’m curious if there are people here who are a member of one or more co-operatives. Let’s just go around and let us know if you are a co-op member (wait for responses).

(see for source of stats and Desjardins anecdote)

I’m not surprised at the results—4 out of 10 Canadians belong to one or more co-operatives. In Quebec it is 7 out of 10.

There have been formal co-operatives in Canada since the early 19th century. Related mutual societies, such as mutual insurance companies, go back just a bit earlier. From farmers wanting a better deal for their crops to workers wanting some real control over their employment conditions and the products they produced to people wanting to share the risks of dealing with fire or major illness to people wanting to have affordable housing where costs and control were shared with their neighbours to people wanting stores accountable to those that purchase the products instead of distant shareholders, co-operatives have been a part of the Canadian fabric since well before confederation. At times a way of marginalised to get control of their lives and resources—Alphonse Desjardins founded the first credit union in Canada when he learned of a Montrealer who had been ordered by the court to pay nearly $5,000 in interest on a loan of $150 from a moneylender—at times a way for government to implement social policy which is why most Canadian housing co-ops were developed—and at times just good economic sense, which is why Co-operatives, Gay Lea and Ocean Spray continue to prosper, Co-operatives make both idealistic and practical sense.
Not surprisingly when dealing with social justice, faith communities can be found in the lead. Here are a few examples. Can people suggest what role they had in the Canadian co-operative movement?

Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops: (co-founder, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada)

United Church of Canada: (co-founder, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada; provided a revolving loan fund to develop housing co-operatives in the early 1970s and 1980s)

Student Christian Movement at the University of Toronto: (founded Campus Co-op at the University of Canada, the oldest continuing housing co-operative in Canada)

Fr. Moses Coady: (Roman Catholic priest who founded the Antigonish movement, which worked throughout Atlantic Canada to develop worker and consumer co-operatives)

St. Luke’s United Church: (one of many churches that had a congregational based Credit Union)

Canadian Alternative Investment Co-operative: (does social investment on behalf of Canadian charities, all of which are religious and the vast majority of which are Roman Catholic religious orders, although the United Church of Canada and Trinity-St. Paul’s United are members)

This is a very exciting time to be a part of the co-operative movement in Canada. There have been a number of co-operatives start up in the past few years—West End Food Co-op, Solar Share Energy Co-operative, Local 75 Housing Co-op come immediately to mind. Less well known are efforts such as A-Zone in Winnipeg, a co-operative of anarchist worker and community focused co-ops, which obtained financing from CAIC and Assiniboine Credit Union to purchase a major building in downtown Winnipeg. The government of Canada, for the first time in its history, has a multi-party Co-operative Caucus/Working Group to explore ways in which co-operatives can be nourished in Canada. Rooftops Canada and CCA are able to work with partner co-operatives in the developing world with ongoing support from CIDA and a core of dedicated volunteers.

To me there are some good reasons for optimism about the Canadian co-operative movement that I haven’t always felt. I admit that there are current challenges for many forms of co-operatives. It is easier to get the financing for a worker or consumer co-operative than a housing co-operative. There are political uncertainties affective alternative energy co-operatives. Credit unions are being hit with changes to the Income Tax Act. Government policies are not always in harmony with the reality of co-operative decision making.

Yet even with these real challenges, I think that this is a potential boom time for co-operatives. I have four reasons for thinking this way.

One very real need for any co-operative is funding. Co-operatives have benefited from funding from CAIC and from the Community Forward Fund, from changes in rules that have encouraged the use of community bonds and crowd funding and from governments across Canada that have supported local co-operative ventures.

Another is community interest. The co-operative model seems to have found momentum both from the concerns that inspired the occupy movement and the new interest in social and impact investing. Both radical anger at the dominate economic systems and the desire of those with wealth to try to effectively use it for social good seem to have blossomed at the same time.

Thirdly, and related to the above, is the slow, persistent and gentle reminder that co-operatives work. Worker co-operatives are more likely to survive their first five years than any other corporate model. Consumer co-operatives have loyal members and, both on the small scale such as Karma Co-op and the large scale such as Mountain Equipment Co-op, find creative ways to fit into niches in the marketplace and, when faced with crisis, their members have been creative in ensuring the ongoing viability of their co-op. Financial co-operatives—credit unions and related member controlled banks—weathered the recent financial crisis that shook the banking system with far fewer problems than traditional banking institutions.

And finally, one of the things that truly gives me hope is the change in leadership of the movement. My generation is being replaced with a far more diverse body of co-op directors, staff and developers than we represent. On my last term on the board of the co-op I live in, the majority of the directors weren’t born when I moved into DACHI. Problems are being addressed in ways some of us older activists are not comfortable with as the new leadership looks at our shared movement with fresh eyes.

With new leaders, alternative financing models in place, a desire for new organisational models and proof that co-operatives work, this is a good time for co-operatives.

Brian Burch

Some helpful website resources:

Ontario and Canadian Co-operative Movement

Housing Co-operatives

Financial & Insurance Co-operatives

Worker Co-operatives

Consumer Co-operatives

Other Co-op Links


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