One Size May Not Fit All

How Co-Ops could Work for Indigenous Communities

Darcy Overland and Merle Massie from the University of Saskatchewan conducted a study that posed a seemingly simple question: if the co-op model is a good fit for indigenous communities, why aren’t there more co-ops? Deeper questions soon arose, uncovered by their research: What is a co-op, from an aboriginal point of view? What is rural? And even, what is community?

The duo presented their findings at the Co-operative Innovation Project (CIP) at Congress 2016 this week. In 1969, there were 145 co-ops owned and operated by Canadian indigenous groups. By 2012, that number had fallen to 123, even as the definition of indigenous communities expanded to include Métis and urban groups and the overall aboriginal population increased.

Although there is a long history of indigenous and Métis co-op entrepreneurship (think early fishing and trapping co-ops), the CIP survey showed 41% of those asked were unfamiliar with the co-operative model. CIP also reported that aboriginal and non-aboriginal rural communities rarely see each other as neighbours, being separated socially, culturally, and legally, if not geographically. Furthermore, the indigenous definition of community is much more holistic, embracing culture, traditions and relationships with the natural world.

Canadian co-operative models are problematic for many Indigenous communities because they are defined as a legal business and include particular legal and accounting elements under provincial or national guidelines. Darcy and Merle’s findings demonstrate that co-operative development must be flexible, adaptable and have significantly different operational designs in order to work effectively with a rural, Indigenous communities. Thus many of the co-op enterprises are not legally registered or formally recognized as a co-op. They conclude that Indigenous communities must be the driving force and have complete control and ownership of their co-operative if it is to be successful, rather than following the models of mainstream co-operative development initiatives.

Darcy and Merle presented three main points that co-operative developers in indigenous communities should keep in mind: the importance of storytelling; the difference between ‘collective’ and ‘cooperative’; and the strong tradition of indigenous governance and decision-making. Successful co-ops also have included, supported, or been based on, traditional practices, foods, pursuits, language, or goods.

They reported that since storytelling is an integral component of Indigenous culture, stories of the success of other Indigenous co-ops resonate the most. Presenting and evaluating indigenous co-ops against the traditional model proves problematic. Collective ownership is understood by aboriginal people to mean belonging to a band by birth, and thus sharing in the collective ownership of the land, and some businesses, buildings, and enterprises. Confusion can therefore arise when people assume co-op membership is an inherent right without paying a fee or actively participating in governance or decision-making.

Such tasks as organising a meeting, booking a hall or putting up posters, works differently in aboriginal communities. Co-op educators must first contact and engage the band council to get permission for a meeting, as the chief and council are gatekeepers, controlling information, finances, and social and economic community development.

Indigenous communities could consider how the co-op model may be adapted to work for them, under their own control and creativity, and in their own context. The CIP report states, “To create co-ops that thrive, co-operative development that inspires, explores, and builds the co-op model from the perspective of Aboriginal culture and community is the only way forward.”

To corroborate this, Darcy and Merle shared a thought-provoking response from an indigenous resident responding to the CIP engagement process, “You did not take anything away. You brought something new to us.”

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1 comment

  1. Tom Kerwin

    Interesting article. Having worked with Canadian indigenous communities for 20 years, I think there is an exciting potential for co-op model. Probably best to start with communities which have a track record of economic development and/or are self-governing, e.g. some in B.C. and the majority in the Yukon.

    I was surprised that there was no reference to Inuit communities in the article. As a group, they have probably the biggest co-op success story. To get a sense of how this started, it’s worth reading ‘Inuit Journey: The Co-operative Adventure in Canada’s North’ by Edith Iglauer, a writer for The New Yorker. Written in 1962, the book is now in its 6th printing, details how some enterprising Inuit, with the help of a Danish co-op expert and visionary Indian and Northern Affairs (as it was then called) staff, got the wheels in motion. Books by James Houston, who worked with Inuit to establish artists’ co-ops, is also worth reading.