Canadian co-ops share lessons learnt during the pandemic

Researchers, co-op farmers and worker co-op leaders shared their insights at the annual congress of sector apex CMC

The response of Canadian co-ops to Covid-19 – and challenges such as remote working, financial pressures and health and safety requirements – were discussed during a session at sector’s annual congress.

Speakers at the event, organised by Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada, included Derya Tarhan, postdoctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, who carried out a study into the co-op response to the pandemic. One of his main findings was that co-ops which had recently been created via conversions had struggled with establishing governance structures and community building. And co-ops that relied on face-to-face businesses were among the hardest hit by the crisis.

“One thing that we noticed is the importance of preserving what could be called community anchor institutions,” he said. “Alot of these businesses were very important to the community.”

But some co-ops didn’t just survive the pandemic – they actually increased their revenues. Aron Theatre Co-op in Ontario raised more money as people kept paying their membership fees even though there were no movies being shown.

Related: Alberta co-ops take centre stage as Canadian movement begins congress

“These co-ops are very resilient, especially through crises,” said Dr Tarhan. “That really has to do with how well rooted in the community they are and how they care for their community.”

Around 80% of conversions to co-op models occur in Quebec. Dr Tarhan thinks this is due to “an enabling ecosystem of not only policy, but institutional support, technical support, financial support, by a network of organisations.”

This is also happening in the rest of Canada, he added but it usually needed an individual or a group of co-op developers to champion the cause and mobilise people. This leaves some communities at a disadvantage.

“Given the massive potential crisis of succession,” he warned, “Canada also needs a very concerted effort to enable co-operative convergence. So one of the lessons is definitely the importance of an enabling environment.”

Hazel Corcoran, executive director, Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation, described some of the challenges faced by worker co-ops, such as workers struggling with financial pressures or mental health issues. Worker co-ops had generally coped well with these challenges, showing resilience – and, as climate change, conflict and inequality have driven people to seek for alternative ways of working, the model is becoming more popular. This is both an opportunity and a challenge, she said, as federal bodies sometimes struggle to meet demand for support and advice.

The federation runs a worker co-op business succession committee which has been leading an advocacy campaign with the federal government; it wants the kind of resources available in Quebec to be replicated in the rest of the country. One of its recent successes has been the mention of co-ops in the Canadian government’s recent Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy, which highlights the role co-ops can play in equity-seeking communities.

“I think that the whole co-op sector needs to get better at all kinds of diversity, inclusion and justice,” Ms Corcoran told delegates. “It will only strengthen us to build in this way and I see it happening but we need to get even stronger.”

Related: Canada government announces $500m co-op house-building spree

Another challenge for the sector will be to prevent demutualisations. “To be a strong co-operative you need to have a strong business and you need to have strong values and member engagement … if you lose either of those … you’re not a co-operative any more,” she said.

Principle six is another issue co-ops can work on. Ms Corcoran said: “At our federation, we have a co-op specific procurement policy whenever possible – we obtained products and services from worker co ops or other kinds of coops and we live that.”

Scott Bolton, president & CEO, United Farmers of Alberta Co-operatives, explained how the pandemic hit Canada just as crop famers were about to start their spring planting.

“We’re a retailer of farm products,” he said. “We help farmers do their business. We’re in rural communities, we operate through a store network, and we had to stay open, and we had to find a way to do it so that farmers could plant crops.”

Related: Members of MEC consider life after demutualisation

The Covid crisis, he said, is where the co-op started “to really shine, and so much … We stepped up as a team … This wasn’t about us, it wasn’t about profitability, it wasn’t about anything other than making sure that we’re doing our part to make sure society is not impacted by something so fundamental as food production.”

Mr Bolton added: “I believe this movement, this model, proved its worth in this time of crisis, and we’ve persevered. It’s because, I think, we have a purpose – and our purpose is that our members feed the world, and we look after them. That’s what we do, and I’m proud of the way our team accomplished that in the crisis.”

He added that the pandemic had led to a different approach to flexible working within his co-op.