Newfoundland and Labrador embarks on a new co-operative journey

‘We’re a resource-based province, and they’re not going to last forever, and we need to be using them in the right way’

Newfoundland and Labrador is Canada’s most easterly province, situated on its rugged Atlantic coast. Though sparsely populated, the province has a strong history of co-operation, says Dave Walsh. 

“It was one of the hardest places in North America you could ever live in, and one of the first places that people set roots down,” he adds. “To get through those hard winters they had to really come together and co-operate.”

Walsh is managing director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Co-operatives (NLFC), headquartered in the province’s capital of St John’s on the Northeast Avalon peninsula. NLFC was established to act as a “unifying voice for co-operatives”,  to further the development of Newfoundland and Labrador’s co-op movement.

In fact, NLFC was part of the province before the province was officially part of Canada.

“We’ve been around for 75 years, but we actually kind of existed before that as well,” says NLFC project specialist Kristen Murray.

“Once we joined the Confederation of Canada in 1949, that’s when we actually incorporated properly under the Canada legislation … though we did exist before that.”

As NLFC celebrates its official 75th anniversary, it is ramping up activity with plans for a new co-operative incubator pilot project, which will support a group of aspiring co-operative entrepreneurs in Northeast Avalon to transform their ideas into successful social ventures.

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Made possible through funding from the Canadian government and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Co-operators insurance, Atlantic Edge Credit Union, and Atlantic Credit Unions, the programme aims to foster innovation, economic development, and community empowerment throughout the province.

The six-month programme will provide five groups interested in starting new co-operative enterprises with training, mentoring, support to access funding and co-working opportunities.

The training will include a diverse range of topics, including but not limited to co-operative fundamentals such as governance and roles and responsibilities. “We’re not telling people how they should be developing their idea and what is going to be a part of it, but exposing them to all sorts of different perspectives and things to draw upon,” says Murray. 

This breadth of perspectives will also be reflected in the mentoring provided by the programme. Murray says she is looking to build a “team around a team” that can offer a range of expertise. 

“Sometimes when you are only tasked with one mentor, they’re only giving you one perspective. The reality is that when dealing with co-ops and a group of people, they’re looking for many different people to give them advice.”

In addition, NLFC will support participants as they apply for funding they to start up – with sources of finance including the fund run by its own subsidiary, the Co-operative Development Fund Corporation.

As well as direct support, groups taking part in the incubator will receive access to local co-working spaces, where they will have a place to work and an opportunity to connect with others.

These local and online spaces will be especially valuable for those who experience barriers to accessing the capital, says Murray – for example, residents of Bell Island who need to get a ferry to reach St John’s. 

“These places might be a local college or chamber of commerce or credit union space, or somewhere that they can have a desk,” says Murray, “And maybe eventually there will be more people in that region during the programme as well, so then they also have peers around them during the programme.”

Through this work, NLFC aims to build a co-operative ecosystem that drives sustainable development and creates opportunities for all, by creating “the next generation of co-ops” in the province.

This mission is more urgent now than ever, says Walsh. “There’s never been a greater disparity between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. 

“We have a very unique set of challenges here in Newfoundland and Labrador – we’re a resource-based province, and they’re not going to last forever, and we need to be using them in the right way. We’re very reliant on oil for example, and no matter what people’s views may be on that, there has to be alternatives. I believe that co-ops can help to offer these alternatives.” 

As well as offering alternatives, co-ops are fundamentally about solving problems, says Walsh.  “Many times people facing challenges in, say, rural communities, are sometimes waiting for outside investment. They don’t realise that whatever your issue is, just by starting a co-operative, you can fix that issue or problem by yourself without waiting on government assistance or some outside company.”

This is exactly what a number of communities in Newfoundland and Labrador have done previously. A notable example is NLFC member Fogo Island Co-operative, established in 1967 after islanders refused resettlement to the mainland when its fishing industry began to collapse. They instead chose to take over the fishery and processing plants to create a sustainable economy for the island. The Fogo Island Co-operative is now the island’s largest employer, producing 50% of its GDP. 

Another is the North Shore Central Ambulance Service, set up as a charitable co-op to raise funds for ambulances, medical equipment and paramedics, as well as providing services such as a warming centre and community kitchen.

Co-operation has long been a deep part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural and political identity, where people have had to “fight and grind for things ourselves”, says Murray. “We don’t live in a perfect world, and so if we want to see a change, we have to make it. I feel like that’s just deeply ingrained in the culture here,” she adds.

Those wishing to help build on Newfoundland and Labrador’s existing co-operative landscape can apply either as participants to the programme from November, or as mentors and workshop leaders from now. 

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