Making a difference: Indigenous co-ops in Manitoba and Saskatchewan

Initiatives range from improving food security to broadband co-ops aimed at narrowing the digital divide

Co-operative values are being put into practice to help the indigenous peoples of Canada reclaim their cultural identities and develop the economies of their communities.

Much of the focus is on issues surrounding food security, with the co-operative model seen useful for promoting indigenous food sovereignty.

Canada has a population of around 1.7 million indigenous people, who are grouped into three categories: First Nations – indigenous people from south of the Arctic Circle, Métis (who trace their descent to First Nations peoples and European settlers), and Inuit communities.

Census figures say nearly half of First Nations people (49.3%) live on reserves, while more than half of indigenous people overall (56%) live in urban areas.

Members of the First Nations of Canada open the World Social Forum march in Montreal in 2016

Social issues include access to health services, quality housing and emergency services.

These came under the spotlight in 2015, when two children on a First Nations reserve in northern Saskatchewan died in a fire, after a dispute over unpaid bills meant emergency volunteer services did not attend. The reserve had its own fire truck but it lacked a trained crew and working equipment.

The tragedy sparked moves to create the Saskatchewan First Nations Technical Services Co-operative, to provide technical services (water, engineering, housing inspections, etc) to First Nation communities across Saskatchewan at the Tribal Council level.

And, in 2016, Co-operatives First was established – a business development organisation to promotes the co-op business model in rural and Indigenous communities across western Canada,

Merle Massie, communications officer at Co-operatives First, says: “One of the strengths of co-operatives for First Nations communities is that it has a familiar decision-making style while offering a community-based ownership model that can take some of the pressure off of already-busy band councils [the basic unit of govenment for Canada’s indigenous people].

“There may be all kinds of small, local needs that community members can solve, leveraging band council help and support, but using the co-op model to drive their own energy to design and create something new.

The co-op model can also be used at the multi-band or tribal council level. It can draw multiple bands or tribal councils together to solve joint needs, while maintaining the identity and jurisdiction of each.”

Initiatives include moves to set up broadband co-ops to bridge the digital divide faced by indigenous people. The Canadian government has committed $500m through its Connect to Innovate programme to connect rural and remote communities – and many First Nations will receive high speed internet for the first time.

For instance, the Manitoba First Nations Technology Council, plans to lay 3,600km of fibre optic cable to reach underserved First Nations communities. Rob McMahon, a co-ordinator at First Mile Connectivity Consortium, a national association of First Nations community-based telecommunications organisations, says this should lead to community-led broadband solutions.

“We use the term ‘First Mile’ [because] everything should flow from the communities,” he says. “The business case, the uses, the policies that are created to support it, all of these things, you need to start with that community engagement.”

Efforts to promote new co-ops for indigenous people include a collaboration between the Saskatchewan Co-operative Association and the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network  to build on “synergies between First Nations culture and worldview, and the co-operative model”.

In 2015, they produced a handbook on co-op development for First Nation peoples in the province, Local People, Local Solutions. It wants to encourage First Nation people to circulate money within their own communities rather than spending it on external businesses – and notes that “for thousands of years, Aboriginal collaborative societies prospered” in the region.

Figures showed that 133 of Canada’s 8,500 co-operatives are run by indigenous people. First Nations and Métis-controlled co-ops employ 1,400 people with an average of 18 people per co-operative, the handbook adds.

Retail co-operatives under First Nations and Métis control represent 71% of Aboriginal co-operatives, and account for 93% of annual sales of CAD $250m.

The average income for First Nations and Métis co-ops is $230m for retail co-ops (mainly grocery stores), $5.5m for fishing and $4.5m for forestry.

In 2001, Aboriginal consumer co-ops were growing at a rate almost twice that of the retail sector or other consumer co-ops, the handbook says.

And it says the co-op model makes a vital difference as “a way for First Nations communities to improve economic conditions while keeping decision-making powers and control with local people.

“Each co-operative is designed to meet the needs of the community it serves, so each co-op has a unique and locally focused way of working.”

It gives examples including the Muskoday Workers Organic Co-op, launched in 2005 to produce organic vegetables for local and regional markets, uses the co-op structure to give “a sense of ownership and decision-making power that reflected the collectivity of First Nations culture”, says the handbook.

It has since started planting fruit trees, inter-planting crops to avoid monoculture, and planted 200km of shelterbelts to encourage biodiversity. And to increase work opportunities in  the community, project participants can gain a Green Certificate through Saskatchewan’s on-farm training programme in agricultural production and management. In one year, it trained 11 families in the knowledge and practice of indigenous organic gardening, agro-ecology and organic food entrepreneurship.

The handbook also looks to the neighbouring province of Manitoba, where Neechi Foods Co-operative, formed in 1990 in Winnipeg, operates a grocery store, restaurant, fruit and vegetable courtyard, and arts market.

“Neechi, meaning ‘sister, brother, or friend’ in Cree and Ojibwa, was created to address food and employment security as well as community-building,” says the report. It has helped to open a new business complex, paid for through provincial and federal grants, fundraising and share offers, to promote Aboriginal artisans and musicians, a farmers’ market, a bakery, and specialty boutiques.

The worker co-op has won the Green Globes certification for the design of the new building, which includes geo-thermal heating and cooling, and the Excellence in Aboriginal Leadership Award, and takes part in initiatives to boost economic opportunity in the community. It is a purchasing partner of the Local Investment Toward Employment programme, and is a supplier partner with Winnipeg’s Social Purchasing Portal.

Related: New co-op to help Canada’s indigenous fish harvesters market their catch

Also in Manitoba, Ka Ni Kanichihk Inc, a non-profit organisation which provides projects to improve the health and wellbeing for indigenous peoples, is working to build indigenous co-operative capacity.

The project offers advice on co-operative law, fundraising, development and governance.

It says: “The idea of a co-operative is nothing new to indigenous people who exercised entrepreneurship and co-operative development long before the co-operative business structure became popular in Canada and elsewhere. In many ways, indigenous people were the first co-operators. Indigenous people have worked together in achieving common goals to sustain livelihoods and develop communities.

“The co-operative model aligns with indigenous values, social expectations and fits into the perspective of how Indigenous peoples view the world: an understanding of connectedness and interdependence of all elements of being.”




In this article

Join the Conversation