Delivering essential services despite harsh conditions

By Susanne Martin, managing editor

It’s always challenging to build a successful business, but in Canada’s Arctic, remoteness and a harsh climate add to the level of difficulty. Co-operatives have been essential in ensuring that local communities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are not only surviving, but thriving, says Andy Morrison, chief executive officer of Arctic Co-operatives Limited.

Of our 31 member co-operatives, only two communities are accessible by road,” he says. “About 70 per cent of the product that sustains those communities goes in by air. It’s supplemented by product going in either by winter road for a few places or by sea during the summer months.”

The high transportation costs make life in remote areas very expensive, says Mr. Morrison. Electricity, for example, can cost as much as eight times of what southern Canadians pay. The result? Doing business is expensive, and not many services are provided by the private sector.

“In many cases, co-ops stepped in because there was a need,” Mr. Morrison explains, adding that co-operatives started in the Arctic in the late 1950s, when many of the communities of today were established and people who had lived a traditional lifestyle were moving to organized settlements.

Aiming to address a range of needs, the co-ops delivering essential services to Canada’s Arctic are multifaceted businesses. SUPPLIED

Aiming to address a range of needs, the co-ops delivering essential services to Canada’s Arctic are multifaceted businesses. SUPPLIED

“Co-ops developed a range of services because either they were not available or the service that was available did not meet their needs,” Mr. Morrison says, adding that the motivation of ordinary people to become involved was to build a stronger community that would grow at a pace they were comfortable with.

Some of the first services – like the marketing of art or fur – were based on important aspects of traditional life, he explained. The proceeds then provided the capital for developing retail stores and the first “transient centre,” which ultimately became the co-operatives’ hotel network.

Among the areas Arctic co-ops are involved in are retail – providing everything a community would require, from food, clothing and general merchandise, to snow machines, all terrain vehicles, oils and lubricants – and the hospitality industry, cable television, fuel distribution and transportation.

It wasn’t much of a stretch for co-operatives to pick up the slack, says Mr. Morrison. “The co-op model – people working together to provide the services they rely on – is consistent with the traditional way of life of the Inuit and Dene in the Arctic, where the people depended on one another for everything,” he explains.
Not only are they conducting business in line with how communities used to function, co-operatives are also working to preserve the people’s culture and identity, according to Mr. Morrison.

“One of the key examples is art marketing. Artists market their products through local co-ops and a federation that gives them a direct route to national and international markets,” he says. “That has not only helped to develop marketing activities of contemporary Inuit art, it has also contributed to the preservation and promotion of history and culture of the people of the Arctic.”

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