Co-operatives in Canada

Author: Ann Benedek

Tagline: Let’s start 2022 with a fresh look at the history and present state of the co-operative movement in Canada.

Step into Karma Co-op.  There’s a kind of laid back, friendly vibe going on – the young woman stacking fresh veggies looks like she’s enjoying it; ask someone for information and they’re glad to help, and the other young woman behind the cash says, “Hi, how’s your day going?” Not your usual shopping experience?         

Karma is a member-owned, democratically run co-op where members are actively involved in their store.  They have a say in what foods and products are available, their source, and if they meet quality standards – all of which fosters a healthy and ethical connection to the food we eat, the people who grow it, and the community at large.  It’s what cooperative means: working or acting together for a common purpose.

    And back in 1761, that is what a group of textile workers did by creating The Fenwick Weavers Society in the village of Fenwick, Scotland.  Eight years later, they formed a consumer co-operative for the benefit of members.  Such groups came together as a movement with the advance of industrialization beginning in Great Britain in the late 1770s, then on to the rest of Europe, and the idea of social equality gradually gained support among forward thinking businesses and workers.  In 1844, twenty-eight cotton mill workers labouring under low wages and poor conditions pooled their resources in order to purchase basic foodstuff at affordable prices.  Known as the Rochdale Pioneers, many consider them the founders of the modern co-operative movement in Lancashire, England.  

    Here in North America, Co-op marketing organizations made an appearance as far back as the 1840s, setting out guidelines that reflect co-operative values.  Originating in England, these principles are much the same today (See Sidebar) and are the cornerstone of co-ops around the world. 

    It seems the farming community played a large role in Canada’s co-operative movement.  Between 1860 and 1900, Canadian farmers in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada developed over 1,200 organic co-operative creameries and cheese factories.  Then in 1906, Prairie farmers organized the Grain Growers’ Grain Company, and by the 1920s, co-ops sold grain for farmers who were members.  Interest in co-operatives continued to grow throughout the early 1900s.  

    Ontario’s oldest co-operatives were both created in 1913 and still exist today – Vineland Growers Co-operative, and the Guelph Campus Co-op (originally OAC Students’ Co-op), for example.   There is an interesting early 20th century political link to co-ops in Ontario. Ernest Charles Drury, a founder of the Ontario agricultural movement, was our Premier, and Agnes MacPhail, an early director of that same movement, was Canada’s first female Member of Parliament.

    A 2017 Canadian government survey of four types of non-financial (see Sidebar) co-operatives that included worker co-ops reported “. . . co-operatives seem to have confidence in the road ahead.”  Statistics Canada seems to agree, showing 5,812 active non-financial co-operatives in Canada in 2019, an increase of 1.5 percent from the previous year.   Of those, 1,104 were in Ontario.  According to the Ontario Co-operative Association, the fastest growing sectors are local (often also organic) food and renewable energy.  The future was looking good.  

    Then, in March 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, causing anxiety and economic uncertainty for businesses large and small.  This ongoing situation presented challenges not only to co-ops, but to local producers and farmers too.  Like other food co-ops, Karma knows the importance of community, and that supporting food co-ops means supporting those local producers and farmers.  Concern for shoppers and workers introduced a new form of shopping – Pandemic Shopping – through new safety measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.  

    “We saw a huge increase in sales during the first few months of panic buying,” says Alex Molina, Karma’s former interim general manager.  

    “Now, over a year into the pandemic we are seeing higher costs for products and more member

resignations. The pandemic has really put a strain on smaller grocers such as ourselves.  I’m hoping that with more community outreach and as things return to normal we will see new and old members come back to the co-op.”

Interested in further co-operative movement reading?  Go to the following online links:

.    Government of Canada: Information Guide on Co-operatives: Co-operatives in Canada

.    Ontario Co-operative Association>brief-history-co-ops

.    The Working Class Movement Library