Canadian Co-op Congress looks at inclusivity in co-ops

The congress looked at a range of topics, including diversity, equity, and inclusion

Co-operatives and mutuals from across Canada met in Ottawa between 12-14 June for their annual congress. The “Co-ops of the Future” event was organised by apex Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada, which supports and unites 7,000 co-operatives and mutuals.

Through a series of workshops, panels, and keynote addresses, the congress looked at a range of topics, including diversity, equity, and inclusion, best practices and technology development, environmental sustainability and social responsibility, federal decision making and global trends.

Co-ops’ role in reconciliation efforts

During one of the sessions, panellists looked at how co-ops could best support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Unrip), while taking into account the issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

Mary Nirlungayuk, Randy Dagasdas and Ed Keddy (photo credit: Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada)

Mary Nirlungayuk, corporate secretary/VP Corporate Services at Arctic Co-operatives Ltd and board member of Co-ops and Mutuals Canada, described her organisation’s efforts to empower indigenous communities. 

Arctic Co-operatives is a service federation that is owned and controlled by 33 community-based co-operative businesses that are located in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Yukon and Saskatchewan. Set up in 1972, the co-op system employs 1,000 people in Canada’s Arctic. The federation also runs a Development Fund to provide financial services to its member-owners.

Nirlungayuk highlighted the importance of providing training and education opportunities on reconciliation, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism. Arctic Co-operatives offers cultural orientation training to new staff members to ensure they are familiar with the environment and respectful of the local customs before going into communities.

“Often it is treated as a foreign community. But it’s right here, 2.5 hours from [mainland] Canada. It’s a unique, beautiful part of Canada that is worth experiencing,” she said.

photo credit: Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada

“Sometimes it’s an afterthought to include indigenous people, it’s important to include them from the beginning,” said Nirlungayuk. She later added that co-ops should be mindful of tokenism, such as suddenly inviting an indigenous person to join the board of an organisation.

Ed Keddy, vice president of Human Resources & Strategy at Arctic Co-operatives Limited, highlighted that it was important for co-ops to dedicate resources towards truce and reconciliation efforts, and make this issue part of their strategic planning. He added that involving local communities can also be beneficial.

Arctic Co-op dedicates a sizeable portion every year towards training and education, and measures the success of these initiatives through a balanced scorecard. Keddy added that this was a journey, and Arctic Co-ops would aim to continuously improve. Asked what recommendations he would give to other co-ops, he said they should “start somewhere”, even if this meant starting small. 

“There will be a learning journey but it is worth it,” he said, adding that Arctic Co-op recently changes its by-laws to make it clear that to serve on board, members do not have to speak English. The federation also introduced interpretation at every board meeting to enable members who do not speak English to be involved. English language is not a requirement to work for Arctic Co-op either.

“Start now, start where you are and make improvements. It’s a journey for us, we have a lot still to be done, but is an on-going process,” said Keddy.

Randy Dagasdas, the CEO of Me-Dian Credit Union Limited also shared his view on how co-ops and mutuals can engage in reconciliation. A first step, he said, was educating staff on the importance of TRC and Unrip. Co-ops should also make sure this is part of a strategic plan. The first Indigenous full-service financial institution to be founded in Canada, his credit union expanded its bond in 2009 to serve all Manitobans in the spirit of reconciliation.

The credit union runs a cultural awareness committee, which meets on a quarterly basis. And it conducts members’ consultations to find out what products and services people in Manitoba need. As a result of one of these consultations, the credit union started the Fresh Start Loan Program for members who may have collections or derogatory items within their credit bureau history. The programme allows the members to restore and renew their credit profile so that they can qualify to borrow again in the future. This includes a 2.5 hour financial literacy seminar, focusing on budgeting and financial planning to bridge the financial literacy gap. Dagasdas said that some members who started in the fresh start programme are now purchasing homes.

Another area of focus is promoting staff members’ personal and professional development and keeping track of progress made via a scorecard. The credit union has grown organically rather than by attracting staff from larger organisations. 

Dagasdas’s tips for other organisations looking to promote reconciliation are to include it in their strategic plan, stay agile and aim to be effective.

Young Leaders’ Showcase

Étienne Desfossés and Pénélope Bégin (Photo credit: Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada)

Youth engagement was another key topic at Congress, which featured a session with young leaders from across the movement. Étienne Desfossés, administrator, FQCMS – Fédération Québécoise des Coopératives en Milieu Scolaire and Pénélope Bégin, member, Canada’s Emerging Co-operators and as strategic customer advisor at Co-operators, presented the findings of a white paper by Canada Emerging Co-operators, an advisory committee to Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC).

The study makes several recommendations to better involve youth in co-ops, such as:

1. Allowing the next generation to develop, giving them time for development and networking

2. Investing in the next generation – many young people depend on funding to attend events, encourage partnerships between youth and enterprises to allow them to develop, allocate funded youth places when organising events

3. Looking closely at current bodies that sit at the table, reserving places of responsibility for youth, allowing them to attend meetings during working hours, creating opportunities for exchange of experience between youth and senior management and board members

4. Diversifying the background around the table – continuing to talk about diversity, allowing for opportunities to be given to everyone equally

5. Developing a presence within the educational system, being active in schools, developing a presence from first years to PhD level through a joint effort and providing apprenticeships, and showing the wider economy co-ops are part of it

6. Making co-op involvement more credible by encouraging people to join boards for example, or involve in Emerging Co-operators Canada

“None of these are more or less important than another. Even though this might seem like a repetition of ideas we’ve already discussed or talked about, action needs to happen. We’ve talked about it, and talked about it, and talked about it. Now it’s time to take action in concrete steps to enable that change. Taking examples from co-ops who have already started to engage in these changes. So we hope that next year when we talk about this, that we have more and more examples coming from each of your co-ops,” said Bégin.

Katy McCreadie, financial experience advisor at Connect First Credit Union in Alberta, described her organisation’s Learn and Earn scholarship programme, which has been going on since 2016. A 10-month matched savings programme, the scheme is open to all students that live in our communities and are in their grade 12 year. A total of 12 scholarships are available for students across central and southern Alberta, who learn how to manage their finances, set goals, and save money towards their goals. Students can earn $4 for every $1 saved, up to $110 a month or $2,200 total. Selected applicants need to show community action, saving goals and career goals. Connect First Credit Union recently increased the scholarship amount awarded from up to CA$2,200 in match funds, to $2,520.

Katy McCreadie (Photo credit: Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada)

McCreadie encouraged other co-ops to join its scholarship programme to help her credit union provide more scholarships.

Connect First Credit Union has also recently partnered with a local youth organisation, YMCA, based out of Calgary to deliver in-person financial literacy sessions and provide teaching materials for them. The modules are tailored to fit the language and knowledge needs of teens aged 16 to 24. 

“By partnering with organisations we can make materials accessible,” she said.

Intersectionality is also important when looking at themes of equity and diversity, pointed out Janielle Maxwell, business conversion project coordinator at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF). 

She referred to a survey by New Power Labs which was conducted specifically within the Canadian finance sector. The research found that black women were least likely to feel that they were treated equally in comparison to men.

“Imagine if we’re attempting to solve this problem of gender inequity in the Canadian finance sector, from one lens of research that doesn’t consider the question of gender and race; our framework would be completely misguided.”

She argued that historically “a lot of the work around improving female experiences in the Canadian finance sector has not really benefitted all women equally. And so this is something that the co-op sector can learn from us: to not duplicate that same error.”

Another important consideration when it comes to this topic is gendered ageism. Maxwell explained that younger women are often not taken as seriously and their voices or achievements are overlooked.

She shared a story of being told she did not get a job due to “not fitting with company culture” after an in-person interview for a job in customer service despite having scored well on her online application.

“When I stepped into the building, you could really tell that they didn’t expect someone looking like myself at all,” she recalled, pointing out that “a lot of the styles that we, black women, put our hair in naturally, a lot of the styles that we gravitate towards, are perceived as unprofessional”.

With the support of the Government of Canada’s Investment Readiness Program, CWCF launched the Justice, Equity, Diversity, Decolonization and Inclusion (JEDDI) Business Conversion Project in September 2022. The initiative aims to increase awareness of social purpose organisations as a viable long-term option to business closures, as well as to help facilitate conversions to social purpose organisations, including co-ops.

These business conversions to social purpose organisations can also benefit members of equity-denied groups, she said.

“The co-op model is not new […] It’s actually rooted in the practices of African, Caribbean, indigenous – and when I say indigenous, I mean both Latin American and Canadian – and queer communities, who have used these models to maintain sort of robust financial systems for their economic survival in the midst of injustices,” she explained.

Another aspect to take into account is terminology. JEDDI chose to use the term “equity-denied”, because “equity-seeking” puts emphasis on the groups needing to go out and get equity, while “equity-deserving” places powers in other people’s hands.

Youth engagement is also high on the agenda of the Conseil québécois de la coopération et de la mutualité (CQCM), which has been exploring the question of how to build succession for the youth in co-ops or co-operative federations.

Jessica Cabana, Cooperative Youth Entrepreneurship advisor at CQCM explained how her organisation is working with housing co-ops to drive young engagement. CQCM tries to adopt a pedagogical approach to enable young people to develop entrepreneurial skills. The apex recently ran a workshop with 25 housing co-ops, which led to some suggestions of concrete actions that could be taken by housing co-ops, including youth.

These include giving a place for the next generation by creating a youth committee and a youth observer seat on their boards and giving young people resources for them to feel empowered and to move forward with some of the ideas that they have.

One of the projects CQCM supports is the Milton Park South Co-op run by young people from Milton park housing co-op. The project brings together people aged 13-17 who carry out various activities and organise community events. CQCM provides training and education for the project coordinator while another co-op provides insurance for the activities carried out. While the young people are not incorporated, they have their own board and committees. Through this experience, they learn how to organise events, write bylaws, take notes from meetings and gain budgeting and accounting skills. CQCM also offers them certificates acknowledging the skills they developed in the process. 

A co-op movement for everyone

Serah Gazali, Juliet ‘Kego Ume-Onyido and moderator Hanen Khemakhem, professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (Photo credit Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada)

Serah Gazali, co-manager of the Women’s Economic Council, argued that one of the easiest measures companies can take to be more inclusive is being flexible. Her organisation’s research revealed that flexibility is something female employees value. She added that another key element is being open to feedback within the sector and the organisation and seeing what the problem is.

Leadership commitment to equity and diversity is also important, said Gazali, encouraging businesses to sign up to the 50 – 30 Challenge, an initiative aiming to challenge Canadian organisations to increase the representation and inclusion of diverse groups within their workplaces. Organisations signing up pledge to achieve gender parity (50% women and/or non-binary people) on Canadian boards and/or in senior management; and significant representation (30%) on Canadian boards and/or senior management of members of other equity-deserving groups.

Celebrating culture and diversity in the workplace can also foster inclusion. Gazali gave the example of being flexible around ways people can take days off to celebrate their own culture. She also pointed out that inclusive policies alone will not be enough unless they are backed by a diverse leadership team.

Unconscious biases can hold back organisations too. Juliet ‘Kego Ume-Onyido, BIPOC board advisor, Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation, warned co-ops about ending up replicating what they are running away from. 

“There’s the danger of us patting ourselves on the back and saying ‘we are so different’. The question is: according to whom?” she asked.

This article was edited on 4 July. An earlier version misspelled Ed Keddy’s surname as “Kerry”.