In Canada, there are some 9,000 co-operatives and mutuals with a total membership of 18 million. Yet while four out of every 10 Canadians are members of at least one co-op, Denyse Guy, executive director of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC), sees a need for more awareness about the principles and values that define the co-op model.
Across the country, co-operative enterprises are working in a wide variety of sectors. They include credit unions, which are often the only financial service providers in rural areas, and insurance companies that are truly committed to the goal of long-term sustainability. Agri-food co-operatives support local farming communities, and housing co-operatives offer solutions for mixed-income Canadians. The list goes on – no wonder Ms. Guy finds it difficult to select just one example.
“Our membership truly stretches from coast to coast to coast,” she says. “In the Arctic, for instance, co-operatives often provide all the goods and services communities rely on.”
Co-ops played – and continue to play – an essential role in building Canada, says Ms. Guy. “Co-operatives are an economic engine. We build communities. As co-operative enterprises, we are driven by the needs of our members. Since we are not driven only by profit, we often offer services that the market economy or multinational corporations would not necessarily be interested in providing.”
But that doesn’t mean co-operatives don’t have to be competitive, says Ms. Guy.
“Of course, co-ops have to compete in the market economy – some of them even in a multinational space,” she explains. And although co-op members tend to be loyal, they also evaluate goods and services from a consumer perspective.
For consumers who make social and environmental considerations part of their purchasing decision, increased awareness about the co-operative and mutual model – and its principles – can be helpful, says Ms. Guy. “From my perspective, it’s a model of how we as humans can interact and provide services, goods and jobs in a sustainable manner.”
An international initiative designed to build a recognizable co-op brand revolves around the use of .coop at the end of an email or web address. “More and more associations and co-op enterprises are embracing this,” she says. “We want to create a label that people understand in terms of its values.”
Ms. Guy also envisions that better understanding about the contribution of co-ops can lead to strategic partnerships with all levels of government. CMC has been working with an all-party caucus on co-operatives since August 2014, which discusses policies affecting co-operative contributions to economic development. The non-partisan caucus provides a venue for exchange and dialogue between parliamentarians and co-operative sector stakeholders.
During the current election campaign, CMC is working to involve candidates from all parties in discussions about how engaging with co-operatives and mutuals could translate into positive action, says Ms. Guy.
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