Notes for A More Coherent Co-op Presentations—Cahoots


Cahoots Festival

Silver Lake Mennonite Camp, May 30, 2014



Thank you all for coming.   I’m Brian Burch. I live, work and volunteer in the co-op sector and have been a part of provincial and national area governing bodies of worker co-ops, financial co-ops and housing co-ops since last millennium.

I’d like people to quickly go round and introduce yourself.   If you could let us know if you are a member of a co-op—if so, please let tell us their name—and what you would like to get out of this workshop.   I hope to have time to touch on areas I’ve missed that you’d like to address.

What is a co-op?

The most basic definition of a co-operative these days is an organisation incorporated under a co-operative act.   But a co-operative is more than that—it is a sharing of resources and vision to meet a common goal.   They are ongoing experiments in the living out of the ideal of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid.

Types of co-ops?

Co-operatives come in a of variety forms, but they tend to fall into the following broad categories:

Worker Co-ops

Consumer Co-ops

Producer Co-ops

Financial Co-ops

Housing Co-ops

Community Co-ops

Worker Co-operative (From Wikipedia):

A worker cooperative is a cooperative self-managed by its workers. This control may be exercised in a number of ways. A cooperative enterprise may mean a firm where every worker-owner participates in decision making in a democratic fashion, or it may refer to one in which managers and administration is elected by every worker-owner, and finally it can refer to a situation in which managers are considered, and treated as, workers of the firm.   La Sembra in Ottawa comes to mind as an example.

Consumer Co-operatives (From Wikipedia):

Consumer cooperatives are enterprises owned by consumers and managed democratically which aim at fulfilling the needs and aspirations of their members. They operate within the market system, independently of the state, as a form of mutual aid, oriented toward service rather than pecuniary profit. Consumers’ cooperatives often take the form of retail outlets owned and operated by their consumers, such as food co-ops. However, there are many types of consumers’ cooperatives, operating in areas such as health care, insurance, housing, utilities and personal finance (including credit unions).   Karma Co-op in Toronto is an example.

Producer-owner Co-operatives (from Wikipedia)

Producer cooperatives are owned by producers of farm commodities or crafts that band together to process and/or market their products. Purchasing or shared services cooperatives are cooperatives whose members are businesses that join to improve their performance and competitiveness. This form of co-op is most common in agriculture, where farmers often must band together to survive in an industry that is increasingly industrial and centralized.   Gay Lea is one of the best known in Canada.

Financial Co-operatives/Credit Unions (From Wikipedia):

A credit union is a member-owned financial cooperative, democratically controlled by its members, and operated for the purpose of promoting thrift, providing credit at competitive rates, and providing other financial services to its members. VanCity is probably Canada’s best known credit union.

Housing Co-operative (From Housing Connections):

CO-OPERATIVE HOUSING– Co-operative housing is collectively owned and managed by its members (the people who live there). Co-operative members actively participate in decision making and share the work involved in running the housing community.

Co-operative housing in Canada is primarily, but not exclusively, non-profit.   However, there are other forms of co-op housing, including equity and limited equity co-ops and building co-operatives.   Don Area Co-op, where I live, is a non-profit housing co-op. Options for Homes involves building co-operatives.

Community Co-operative (from

Community co-operatives are organisations set up to provide a service or services to a particular community and which use co-operative principles to guide their organisations and their activities.  Forward 9 Co-op, in Toronto, was formed with this in mind.   Community Partners For Success Co-operative Quinte and the Bias Free Co-operative in Ottawa are more recent examples.

What are the co-op principles?

Seven Cooperative Principles:

Cooperatives around the world generally operate according to the same core principles and values, adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1995. Cooperatives trace the roots of these principles to the first modern cooperative founded in Rochdale, England in 1844.

1. Voluntary and Open Membership
Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all people able to use its services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

2. Democratic Member Control
Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members—those who buy the goods or use the services of the cooperative—who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions.

3. Members’ Economic Participation
Members contribute equally to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. This benefits members in proportion to the business they conduct with the cooperative rather than on the capital invested.

4. Autonomy and Independence
Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If the co-op enters into agreements with other organizations or raises capital from external sources, it is done so based on terms that ensure democratic control by the members and maintains the cooperative’s autonomy.

5. Education, Training and Information
Cooperatives provide education and training for members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperative. Members also inform the general public about the nature and benefits of cooperatives.

6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

7. Concern for Community
While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of communities through policies and programs accepted by the members.

What does faith have to do with this?

Acts 2:43-47 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

From the earliest days of the Christian faith mutual aid and the sharing of resources was a living expression of the Shalom kingdom as a living expression of practical love in the world.   While not a specific Christian form—the On Co-op website lists a number of Muslim co-operatives—-there would be no co-operative movement in Canada if it was not for Christian communities who took seriously the example of the earliest Christians who did the hard and difficult work of sharing their skills and talents to make the world better.   It was no co-incidence that the earliest leadership of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation were people like the Methodist minister J.S. Woodsworth or the Baptist minister Tommy Douglas.   Building the New Jerusalem was a shared work.   From the Social Gospel to Liberation Theology, co-operative initiatives have been seen as the practical way to address social problems while showing that alternative models of social and economic organisation are practical and viable.

Some examples of the faith roots of co-ops in Canada—please feel free to jump in if you know their contribution:

Roman Catholic Bishops, Quebec: Sought Pope Pius X’s approval for priests to manage local caisses.

Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops: co-founder, Co-operative Housing Foundation of Canada, which became the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada.

United Church of Canada: co-founder, Co-operative Housing Foundation of Canada, which became the 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

“Toyohiko Kagawa, Japanese Co-operator, spoke at a Student Christian conference in Indianapolis during the Christmas holidays in 1935. Four University of Toronto theology students Donald Mclean, Art Dayfoot, Archie Manson and Alex Sim were so moved by his speech that upon returning to Toronto they formed a discussion group to debate the possibility of operating a co-operative. Riding on the tails of a depression, the men decided that a housing co-operative would be the most pragmatic venture to undertake. In October 1936, finally able to gather the minimum number of people to open a cooperative, the men established the first Campus Co-op House that they called Rochdale, at 63 St. George Street, accommodating 12 men, many of the farm youths with a United Church affiliation. The principal of Victoria College used the first floor for offices and the top two floors were vacant.   The Co-op men occupied the top two floors, eleven rooms, including a kitchen and a storeroom, rent-free, paying maintenance fees only.”

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

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

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, the SCM, CFSC and Trinity-St. Paul’s United are members

Waterloo County Mennonites—founded the Mennonite Credit Union, one of the largest community based credit unions remaining in Canada.: “Founded in 1964, the credit union began with a radical vision for expanding our faith community’s historical commitment to mutual aid.  What started out as $22 in a cash box and a modest attempt to share financial resources among Waterloo County Mennonites has grown into a full-service Anabaptist financial cooperative. We remain committed to the radical dream of our founders: to be a Christian vehicle for the sharing of financial resources within the Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren in Christ communities. And today we’re building on that dream, serving members of other Christian faith communities who share our values.”


Unlike a lot of community based initiatives I have been a part of, co-operatives work. They are not perfect organisations—we are not perfect people and co-operatives reflect this.   But they work.   According to the On Co-op website: “The survival rate of co-operative enterprises is almost twice that of investor-owned companies after five or 10 years in operation. “ (   No matter how bureaucratic a co-operative becomes, and in large co-operatives like MEC or credit unions like Alterna can become rigid and governance remote from the average member, the boards come from the membership and the by-laws that govern them are approved by the members.   The principals that are woven into the life of a small worker co-op or a housing co-op are woven into the core of even the largest co-operative.   I do think it is important for people who are connected to the co-operative movement attend federations and co-op cluster meetings to realise that the dreams of a co-operative and more compassionate world are shared at all levels of the movement and in all sizes of co-operatives.

Humans are social creatures.   Even those of us who are loners are connected in many ways to other people.   The co-operative movement takes the realities of quilting and barn raising bees and applies this sharing to the meeting economic and social needs of each other and the wider world.

The co-operative movement has never been inward looking or isolationist.   Initiatives such as Rooftops Canada and the Co-operative Development Foundation work with partners around the globe to encourage and support local co-operative development and emerging leaders.

Despite many changes in the political and landscape in the world since I attended my first co-op meeting, I remain confident in, and evangelical about, the co-operative movement.   I am, at heart, a CCFer who will not rest contented until it we have eradicated capitalism and established the Cooperative Commonwealth. (paraphrased from the Regina Manifesto)

Q & A


Trivia Question:

When did the co-op rainbow flag first fly

ICA adopted its original rainbow flag in 1925, with the seven colors symbolizing unity in diversity and the power of light, enlightenment, and progress.

An interesting report on Co-operatives in Canada can be found at:


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