Are we as cooperative as we think we are?

This post, by Brendan Reimer was originally posted by the Canadian Community Economic Development Network.

This summer, I had the great privilege to be invited by Vancity Credit Union to join their two-week study tour of the Italian co-op community as a representative of Assiniboine Credit Union, where I have been elected by the members to the Board of Directors.

With more than 111,000 co-ops serving their members, their impact in communities and the whole country is enormous. At the epicenter of the movement, the region of Emilia-Romagna has 8,000 co-ops, which represent 40% of the region’s GDP. Research evidence reveals that this co-operatization of the economy creates both a stronger economy, but also a fairer one – something that leads to greater social cohesion and societal stability.  

What led to the permeation of co-ops in their economy, particularly in northern Italy, is a set of historical and cultural factors that we simply cannot replicate in Manitoba. However, the Italian story is also grounded in a strong dedication to a set of values – cooperation and reciprocity – that is at the root of their success. These values are not only held within a co-op between members, but as a vision for the future in solidarity with all other co-ops.  

This values-guided vision has driven them to work as inspired grinders over decades to create an enabling ecosystem in which co-ops thrive. Yes, they do this for their own benefit as they know that a strong ecosystem will help strengthen their own co-op. However, their efforts are also inspired by a selfless vision for a different society where Co-operative Enterprises Build a Better World – and they dedicate their own resources to achieving this vision even if it will not directly benefit their own co-op.

For example, the Italian co-op sector worked to create legislation mandating every single co-op in Italy to contribute 3% of their profits toward co-op development. As a result, each year millions of dollars resource a range of co-op institutions that advance public policy priorities, provide a range of financing options, implement marketing and public education campaigns, offer training and build sector capacity, and build the solidarity and relationships between co-ops in the sector.

It is not only the comprehensiveness of this ecosystem that is impressive, but also its scale and robustness. These sector-building institutions create an ecosystem in which co-ops have the support they require to start, grow, and flourish. Again, the resources are provided by co-operatives that are passionately dedicated to the success of the co-op movement as a whole, rooted in an unwavering vision for a better world and a belief that to achieve this vision the whole movement will need to be strong, not just their own co-op.

In Manitoba, we also have a strong history of communities working together to create co-operative solutions to local economic and social challenges, resulting in a strong co-op community in our province. And yet, we do not have the ecosystem they have in Italy, which limits our ability to support existing and emerging co-ops and leaves us far short of the full potential social and economic impact that co-ops could have in Manitoba.

While co-ops themselves are inherently collective, are co-ops in Manitoba more individualistic than those in Italy? As mentioned, 100% of Italian co-ops contribute financially to building the movement and a strong ecosystem. Yes, it is mandatory, but nobody is complaining and it was the sector’s idea in the first place. In Manitoba, fewer than 10% of co-ops have made the decision to contribute to the Co-op Development Fund, despite extremely generous tax credits offered by the Province to do so. Yes, there are many other ways for co-ops to support the sector, both here and in Italy, but the difference in this particular comparison is stark.

I believe passionately in the co-op model, for its ability to create a better economy and society. But what I learned in Italy is that we really could hit another inspiring gear in our drive to achieving this potential if we build a more cohesive, integrated, and collectively resourced co-op system in Manitoba. However, this can only be realized by dedicating our collective capacity (skills, time, expertise, and cash) to building it, which will require us to ground our vision and work in the values of reciprocity and solidarity.

If we really believe in the transformative power of co-ops, why not put our full weight behind creating an ecosystem with the necessary expertise, services, and resources required to achieving our vision? Do we live in a duality where we value the collectivity of the co-op we are part of, and yet see the co-op itself as an individual entity rather than standing in solidarity with all other co-ops? Is our sector a random collection of similar legal structures, or are we a family / movement that believes that we can create a better world if we aggregate our various efforts, resources, and outcomes? If the latter, we must act concretely to ensure that this becomes the reality in Manitoba.

We have a million co-op memberships in Manitoba. Each membership is an opportunity for people like you and I to raise this question at our co-op’s next AGM – what is our co-op doing to contribute to the growth and strength of other co-ops and the co-op movement as a whole? Let us challenge ourselves to do better, to think with vision and solidarity, and to believe that together we can build the ecosystem required in Manitoba for Co-operative Enterprises to Build a Better World.

Brendan Reimer is Manitoba Regional Director of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network.