Jill Kelly, president (2012-13) of the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) sent this note on LinkedIn:
I found this article interesting. I’m wondering why you recommend a new national organization for lobbying in addition to the existing national organizations, as opposed to our current work to replace CCA and CCCM with a new organization.—Jill
Jill is referring to Accelerator’s action plan for a co-op nation where we called for the sector to establish “a new and highly visible coalition of cooperatives.” This would be an addition to what now exists. Its focus would be on government. All major cooperative enterprises, including Ag producers, mutuals, CUs, caisses, worker co-ops, retailers, manufacturers, health and social service providers, and the various apex organizations would be invited to join the coalition and help deliver high level contributions to current policy questions and, when appropriate, speak to power with a united voice on substantial questions.
The potential rejigging of the CCA and Conseil canadien de la coopération et de la mutualité (CCCM) into a new Canadian apex organization to support co-ops is not going to do this or anything like it. If it comes to pass it’s not creating anything new. It will be somewhat larger, somewhat more representative of the Canadian co-op mosaic, somewhat more bilingual. But it will be essentially a bigger version of the same animal. It will divide its resources as it always has and as it must, first and foremost to provide services to existing co-ops, then to assist in the development of new co-ops and finally to influence public opinion and policy.
The union of CCA and CCCM is long past due. But it’s not what’s required to get government policy, programs and regulations aligned with the goals of the cooperative movement. Co-ops have not been at the federal government table for generations. They’ve not been in the room. They’ve not been anywhere in sight.
Let me qualify. I’ve counseled some of Canada’s large corporations from time to time on their relations with governments; created and produced (in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax) seminars on dealing with governments in Canada; developed and led collocutions among industry, labour and governments in Ottawa and all provinces except PEI and Nfld and helped bring more than 4,000 participants up to speed on government policy. This was all long ago. I’ve been a journalist for the past twenty years, as I was for the first twenty out of school. But I haven’t forgotten much about how government is influenced.
The best-ever champion for the co-op sector at the federal level died this month (March 2013). Gene Whelan, the minister in the green stetson, was a giant with the common touch. But he left the political stage thirty years ago. Whelan, who had worked for a co-op, created and sheltered the Cooperative Secretariat in his department while he was Minister of Agriculture for a dozen years from 1972. That marked the heyday for co-ops in Ottawa. The federal cooperatives act was passed in 1970. Housing co-ops got the biggest boost ever from the feds in 1973 and the years just following. The father of today’s emerging Liberal leader was Prime Minister then, you might recall, and that was the last time that co-ops were taken seriously by the federal government. Pierre Trudeau, Eugene Whelan and André Ouellet (Urban Affairs Minister) were the last players of any importance to give second thought to co-ops. Forty years ago. Oh, and Allan MacEachen. A finance minister and the nation’s first deputy prime minister in the course of a long and distinguished career, MacEachen was a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University at a time when that school was a hotbed of co-op fever. St. FX housed the Antigonish Movement founded and steered by the priest-cousins, Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins.
They were also the first feds to pay attention some sixty years after the movement organized itself. CCA’s precursor was born in 1909 in direct response to the failure of “efforts to secure effective legislation for the development of co-operatives in Canada,” as Ian MacPherson writes in A Century of Co-operation. “Those failures severely limited the capacity of the national movement to influence federal government policies and to create a well-integrated national program for co-operative development and growth.” Co-ops in Canada live with the consequences of this failure. It should be an uppermost objective of today’s co-op leadership to ensure that members a century from now don’t say the same.
The co-op secretariat has languished in Agriculture until now. The government said in January that it would be moved to Industry Canada, which was something CCA asked for and considers a victory for its lobbying efforts. But there’s been nothing said since, so it might still be in some departmental limbo while bureaucrats bargain about moving chairs.
In any event, it’s not such a victory, given the consistent ripping away of the past several years. The secretariat is moving alright but it was already crippled by cutbacks in 2011. The $4 million annually the Secretariat once had to get new co-ops underway, is gone. The move to Industry Canada may turn out to have value, but it costs nothing and might not mean anything. On the co-op housing front, there is continuing uncertainty about subsidies for lower income members as federal mortgages, to which the subsidies are tied, get paid out. CMHC has appeared to back away from draconian mortgage refinancing penalties. But there remain some extra hoops that any hopeful co-op will have to jump through if they want to shuck a CMHC mortgage.
Those two concessions — moving the secretariat and easing mortgage penalties — were the main items out of a week of parliamentary hearings in the heat of summer. The hearings were a Liberal inspiration but proved a godsend to Conservatives, who point to them as an observance of the UN International Year of Cooperatives while using them as a forum for self-congratulation. The 2013 budget cut a tax benefit that credit unions had enjoyed for years, while leaving it intact for other forms of enterprise. These are not friendly acts. It’s not that co-ops are being targeted. Co-ops are just collateral damage. Co-ops are not visible in the big picture.
And then, they keeping shooting themselves in the head with ill-concealed contempt for the government we happen to have. To hear Mr. Harper’s name pronounced in an average co-op meeting is to hear a loud exhalation of groans and various slurs. It arises, of course, from self-identification with the aims of cooperation, fairness, community and social justice. Cooperators are good guys is the subtext. But this is an incredibly self-mutilating way of looking at the Conservative government. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to co-ops that this government is open for business.
It’s particularly odd. If there’s one thing that the co-op movement wants to get across to the rest of the world it’s that it builds sustainable businesses. Co-ops are all in business of one kind or another. If there’s one door to this government that readily opens when approached, it’s the business door. But rather than camp around that door repeating day after day, need after need, ear after ear, “there’s a co-op for that,” the co-op movement bemoans the closure of other doors.
Cooperatives are proved alternatives. They work economically and they throw off social benefits. That needs to be understood at the highest levels of national decision making and incorporated as a matter of course in legislation, regulation, policy and programs.
It will have to happen if co-ops are to make their potential contribution to resolving many social concerns in areas such as housing, health, employment, child and elderly care, benevolent enterprise, local harvesting and supply, community services and economic development.
It will have to happen if the movement in Canada is going to rise to the challenge that ICA has laid down. IYC 2012 provided a surge of momentum that needs to be nurtured and built upon through 2020 to make cooperatives the fastest growing form of enterprise and have the co-op model acknowledged as the leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability.
Professor MacPherson, a former CCA president and the pre-eminent historian of the movement in Canada, observes that Canada’s cooperators “are challenged with deciding whether they want to create a distinctly different economic system operating according to principles and goals different from private or government enterprise, or want merely to own a series of companies operating in those areas where, for historical and social reasons, they have happened to emerge.”
Timing is everything and there’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. It’s hard to imagine a moment more fortuitous than right now, on the wings of IYC and with the need for better approaches to economic and social development so evident on all sides, for the cooperative movement to make a great leap forward. Accelerator’s assumption is that Canada’s cooperators will opt for MacPherson’s first challenge, to create a better system, in which case they’ll want to see some changes made. I won’t get into what those might be. Accelerator’s action plan for a co-op nation includes provision to discover what cooperatives really want. That’s the topic for another article. If what they want is to go for the gusto, as the ICA is challenging them, it’s not going to happen by following the old path, even broadened. It needs a focused force to overcome government inertia.
Of course it’s asking superhuman sublimation of self-interest for the leaders of the current apex organizations to embrace any such notion. This was precisely the reaction of corporate leaders in the manufacturing and exporting associations and the Chamber in the mid-1970s when Tom d’Aquino was engaged to form the Business Council on National Issues. They all joined later, of course, along with a constantly refreshing 150 of the largest companies in Canada. BCNI was renamed the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in 2001 and then a few years ago Tom was succeeded as the corporate sector’s primary link to government by the Rt. Hon. John Manley, former deputy prime minister.
If you ask some of these people you’ll hear they had a lot of influence on matters such as Canada’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Do Canadian co-ops want that kind of clout? Do they need it? Yes. If they trust in their model strongly enough to envision Canada as a co-op nation, yes they do.