UPDATE Dec. 2, 2015: Originally posted in July 2014, this description of the good work on behalf of co-ops by Mauril is reposted as tragic news of his ALS diagnosis becomes known, just six weeks after he was re-elected as MP for Ottawa Vanier, now a member of the governing Liberal Party.
An obscure member of the third party in Parliament is leading the co-op movement in Canada. His name is Mauril Bélanger.
The Honourable Mauril is not obscure among Liberals. He was a junior cabinet minister in both the Chrétien and Martin governments, responsible for official languages among other things. He was co-chair of the party’s 2012 biennial convention. He has been elected eight consecutive times by the voters of Ottawa Vanier, which is far from a record (Herb Gray won 13 in Windsor) but is pretty impressive to the political class. It doesn’t ripple a great wave in the coast-to-coast public pool, though. “Mauril qui?” would be the usual response of most Canadians away from Parliament Hill.
But think again. There are 18 million* members of co-operatives in Canada. To this crowd, Mauril has become champion. From coast-to-coast and all stops between he’s in demand. He speaks to annual meetings and conventions in Moncton, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Why is an opposition member of a downtown Ottawa riding going to speak to farmers in Alberta and fishers in Nova Scotia? He puts it this way: “As Liberal Advocate for Co-operatives, I think it’s important to meet with representatives from different associations and to be present on the ground to witness the reality lived by cooperatives around the country.”
Advocate for Co-operatives. It’s a novel political title, invented by Mr. Bélanger himself and officially granted by Bob Rae while he was interim leader of the Libs. He’s not a critic. There’s no government position on cooperatives and therefore nothing to criticize.
But it was the UN’s International Year of Cooperatives and the first thing the newly minted advocate did, back in the summer of 2012, was to call for parliamentary hearings on the status of cooperatives in Canada. Much to his astonishment, and everyone else’s, the government agreed to the hearings. Not much came of them, but all at once cooperatives were in play on the Hill. This year the political process picked up the theme when an all-party caucus on cooperatives was convened, with Mr. Bélanger as co-chair along with reps from the Conservative and NDP parties.
Mr. Bélanger is a long serving member who knows the nooks and crannies of Parliament as well as anybody. He’s particularly adept at locating or creating niches where co-ops can find friends and empathy on the Hill. His helping hand may be even more in demand now that Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada has been formed from the English and French segments of the Canadian movement, shedding the full-time government relations manager of the Canadian Co-operative Association in the process.
That may be saying too much about his role. But this much is fact. Until Mauril picked up the torch, the last politicians who knew anything more about cooperatives than how to spell it (even this is never clear, between co-operative and cooperative), were in the Trudeau cabinet in the 1970s (background here). Before Bélanger co-ops hadn’t been heard in Ottawa for half a century. Now they’re here. How high and how fast they move on the government agenda is entirely in the hands of voters. Whenever enough of these across the country opt for a new Trudeau government, it’s a good bet that Ottawa-Vanier will once again return her favourite son and the Honourable Member for Cooperatives will be chomping at the bit to lead his herd to the promising land.
* 18 million isn’t quite bogus but it must be noted that double counting of members who belong to more than one co-op inflates this number and that about half of the impressive total are members of just two co-ops, Desjardins and Mountain Equipment. Ten million individual members may be nearer to reality.