The co-operative difference in Canada: How CMC promotes the sector

We speak with Daniel Brunette and Véronique Boucher of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada about the challenges of raising awareness in a vast, diverse country

With a relatively small population – 38 million people – spread across the second largest country in the world, speaking two official languages alongside several indigenous ones, Canada poses some tough challenges when it comes to national messsaging.  

For the co-op movement, things are even trickier: of the country’s 7,500 co-ops, only 100 are registered at federal level; most operate at provincial level.

Between 2010 and 2015, the Canadian Co-operative Association – in partnership with four Canadian universities – conducted research on the social, economic and environmental impacts of co-ops on Canadians and their communities. The project was funded by the federal government and found that co-ops enrich their communities, particularly in sectors like housing and renewable energy and created jobs at five times the rate of the overall economy.

As the national apex representing all provincial co-operative federations across the country, Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC) works to raise awareness about co-ops as well as bring the various co-op sectors in different regions together.

Related: Canadian government to embark on a $500m co-op house-building spree

Its initiatives to build a more cohesive movement include sending a newsletter, holding a national congress on a yearly basis, and organising various webinars.

In April 2017 a private members’ bill recognising the importance of co-ops in Canada passed through the Canadian parliament. The ripple effect from that was the commissioning of a series of consultations by the federal government, which showed a need for more awareness about co-operatives.

The government paid for a one-on-one course on co-ops to be developed and delivered to 500 public servants involved in frontline economic development, says Daniel Brunette, director of advocacy and partnerships at CMC. He thinks that such initiatives are crucial to growing the sector.

Daniel Brunette

Awareness is also an issue when it comes to the transfer of enterprises.

In 2019 CMC commissioned a national survey of 5,000 Canadians to explore public attitudes about the economic system, broader public concerns, and what role co-operatives could play in addressing those concerns. The study found that 30% of Canadians are members of a co-op – but only 10% say they are very familiar with the co-operative business model, with another 37% saying they are ‘pretty familiar’. Furthermore, three in four Canadians are unaware that the largest financial institution in Quebec, the Desjardins Group, is a co-operative. This figure includes half of Quebec residents.

CMC was involved in Coop Convert, a research project examining the process conversion to co-operatives. One of its findings was that only 7% of business owners had already considered converting to co-op while 17% were somewhat likely to have considered it. 

“Business owners and entrepreneurs are not necessarily familiar with the co-operative business model,” says Mr Brunette, adding that the model should be taught in schools – as actually happens in Quebec, where the high school curriculum includes running unincorporated co-ops.

To address the lack of awareness around co-operatives at a national level, CMC tried to engage with groups such as the Women’s Economic Council and the People Centred Economy Group to run joint advocacy campaigns and awareness raising initiatives.

Related: Canadian co-operators want law change to prevent repeat of MEC demutualisation

A bilingual association, CMC was formed in 2014 through the merger of the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) and the Conseil Canadien de la Coopération et Mutualité (CCCM).

“The purpose of that was to establish one strong Canadian voice: everything we do is bilingual,” says Mr Brunette. In addition to French and English, some provincial associations operate in local dialects, particularly in Arctic communities. CMC aims to help connect these different provincial co-operative associations and Francophone and Anglophone co-op organisations.

“Some co-ops are at the heart of the community because they provide access to essential products and services,” says Véronique Boucher, communications manager at CMC.

Véronique Boucher

Explaining what a co-operative is to the national press is not without challenges. Large newspapers with business sections are less likely to cover co-ops than local papers, says Mr Brunette. “It really depends on who you’re talking to. In many places across Canada co-ops are omnipresent.”

Such is the case of Quebec, a province that is home to over 3,000 co-ops and mutuals. Quebec-based Conseil Quebecoise Coopératives et de la Mutualité (CQCM) ran a bilingual campaign to promote co-ops called Co-op Effect, which managed to attract coverage in the local press.

There is also competition from non co-ops. “Some people have appropriated some of the best practices of co-ops but at the end of day, they’re still for profit,” says Mr Brunette. “So there’s that the ‘I don’t know enough’; versus the ‘oh, I have an erroneous assumption of the co-op is so it’s more than an affinity purchasing programme’.”

CMC’s priorities are helping the social economy and co-ops to secure investment and be prepared to receive it, doing feasibility studies, making sure that social economy investors know about co-ops, and co-ops are aware of available funding. Rather than trying to engage with the wider public, CMC is targeting specific groups such as women in business or young people.

“Just putting money out for front page ads on national newspapers is not going to solve the [awareness] problem,” warns Mr Brunette.

Individual co-ops also help to spread awareness about the sector. Some co-operatives actively promote their co-operative identity  –including via their branding. Among these is Sollio Cooperative Group, which rebranded in 2020 from La coop fédérée. “They’re trying to showcase the co-operative difference in everything, from their message or media messaging to their packaging,” says Mr Brunette.

Canada also celebrates its national Co-op Week in October. For this, CMC prepares a standardised national message which is then picked up by provincial associations. This gets the attention of provincial newspapers, particularly in areas with a rich co-op history like Quebec, with occasional mentions in the national press as well.

Mr Brunette says promoting the co-operative difference “comes down to more strategic conversations” with government officials – and it’s important to run the campaign properly, because messages from big flash campaigns could be forgotten if they are not repeated.

Ms Boucher adds that, for most consumers, what matters most is that their needs are fulfilled. “If the co-ops are doing a good job, they will get clients who will come back,” she says. When they get clients the co-ops will be able to share their message.”

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