The character of Canada’s co-operative movement

The latest issue of the Journal of Co-operative Studies is dedicated to the celebrated Canadian scholar of the co-operative movement, Dr Ian MacPherson who died this year. The...

The latest issue of the Journal of Co-operative Studies is dedicated to the celebrated Canadian scholar of the co-operative movement, Dr Ian MacPherson who died this year. The subject of this special issue – co-operation in Canada – would have been dear to Ian’s heart.

As Ian himself pointed out, the co-operative movement in Canada is a rich and complex contributor to the social history of Canada and to its current character.

Immigrants to Canada from Britain – but also from Finland, Italy and Ukraine – brought with them an experience of co-operative enterprise that they applied to the particular needs and resources they encountered in their new settings, especially in the mining towns from coast to coast. The oldest established co-operatives were mutual insurance companies founded in the 1840s.

Today there are an estimated 9,000 co-operatives and credit unions supplying products and services to at least 18 million members across the country. They are found in almost every sector of the economy, from agriculture and financial services to health care and renewable energy. On behalf of their members and communities, they hold more than 370 million Canadian dollars in assets, employing over 150,000 in a population of about 35 million. Canada has the highest per-capita credit union membership in the world, with one-third of its population a member of at least one credit union.

That history and character of co-operative Canada is embodied in distinct ways in its various regions, building on indigenous traditions of co-operation and long histories of social economy enterprise in the traditional economy.

The Maritime provinces are the site of the oldest consumer co-operatives in North America, established by immigrant British coal miners in 1861. The Maritimes remain a strong co-operative presence, especially in agriculture and the fisheries but also in new areas such as health care. The co-operative movement is a significant contributor to the distinctive place of Quebec in the Canadian federation and has a unique character within the co-operative/credit union family of Canada.

There is a strong, community-based and government-supported co-operative presence in all sectors and its credit unions are part of the financial backbone of the province. Ontario’s co-operative activity was historically strong in agriculture, where it remains a potent player, but its largest sector is currently housing co-operatives and its activity extends into a range of enterprises, including novel areas such as renewable energy.

The co-operative movement on the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and
 Alberta dates from at least the 1870s and quickly took root in the agricultural activity that was fundamental to the region. Marketing co-operatives were especially important in protecting
 the interests of farmers in relation to the profit-seeking corporations looking to purchase 
grain and livestock.

With the depressed economy of the thirties, credit unions became 
a critical means for farmers to protect their interests and control their futures. Saskatchewan credit unions proved innovative sources of the first automated teller machine and the first debit card transaction in Canada. And in 1935, Saskatchewan became home to the first and only consumers’ co-operative refinery.

By the end of 2012 there were 1,196 co-operatives and
 55 credit unions in Saskatchewan employing over 10,000 people and supporting over a million memberships in a province of a little over 1 million people.

As in the rest of Canada, British Columbia saw an early interest in agricultural co-operatives, but also in the area’s vital fishing industry. Both sectors sought to protect producers from the predatory interests of corporations wanting to capitalise on their production.

Consumer co-operatives also emerged early as an alternative to company stores in mining communities, and credit unions sprang up to meet financial service needs. BC now has co-operatives in all sectors 
and the largest credit union base in English-speaking Canada. Today, approximately 75% of the huge BC apple crop is sold by one marketing co-operative whose members are four other co-operative packing-houses.

In Canada, as elsewhere, co-operatives took root in contexts of potential or actual oppression, of social conflict, injustice and upheaval, giving rise to its fundamental commitment to voluntary and open membership, to economic democracy and concern for community. Globally and locally these are, more than ever, ‘cutting edge’ commitments in an economic arena dominated by multi-national corporations without real citizenship, required above all to produce attractive quarterly financial returns for their shareholders, wherever they may be.

In the co-operative vision, the participants in economic life are first of all community members with shared needs for livelihood, including social inclusion. Their lives as managers, workers, producers and/ or consumers are meant to be firmly embedded in that reality. Positive social outcomes, in the form of inclusion, solidarity and sustainability, are not just ‘positive externalities’ of co-operative enterprise; they are part of its purpose.

The seven contributors to the latest Journal give a glimpse of some the most interesting current issues in Canada’s co-operative movement and — it is hoped — help stimulate an appetite for a fuller understanding of its unfolding story.

• Isobel M Findlay is a professor of Management and Marketing, Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan. Ana Maria Peredo is Professor in the Peter B Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. Fiona Duguid is an instructor in the Co-operative Management programs at Saint Mary’s University.

In this article

Join the Conversation