Although I have now lived in Ottawa for two years, I haven't taken the time to visit Parliament until recently. Since the spring I've now attended three sessions, and I must admit they have all been very interesting - and for rather different reasons. Last week I caught the end of question period and stayed around for a ninety minute debate that stood to change the course of formal public support for the co-operative sector in Canada.
I recently started a new position, working for an organisation called the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. Not only am I new to the CWCF, I am also inexperienced with the world of co-operatives. In October 2011 I was fortunate enough to meet Mark Goldblatt of the Canadian Co-operative Association. I was active in the Occupy Ottawa movement, and Mark wanted to put on a workshop about the power of co-opeartives as an alternative to business corporations. I helped him get his word across, and a friendship was formed. Over successive lunches he gave me a deep appreciation for the values, the history, and current climate of co-operatives. I learned that co-operatives were special because they were a democratic way of providing goods and services. Moreover, these businesses can share profit fairly - a way that a investor-owned corporation would never even dream of.
I am now someone who proudly works in a vibrant sector, but I am leery of just how sustainable co-operatives will be able to remain given the position of the Canadian government. In April, a release from the Ministry of Agriculture announced that the Co-op Development Initiative (CDI) was going to be cut. This was devastating news. The thousands of struggling co-opearives across Canada will lose a valuable financial lifeline. Additionally, the federal Co-operatives Secretariat has been almost
eliminated, meaning that valuable statistics-gathering, research, and
partnering with the sector will no longer be a role seriously played by
the federal government. Moreover, co-op owners and members will lose the sense of socio-political support from the government, a critical player that can keep co-ops competitive in a sloped playing field. To add insult to injury, this injustice was coming during the United Nations International Year of the Co-operative.
Resistance to the cuts, however, has been minimal. The general public, for one, has not been aware of the cuts. Traditional news outlets have failed to make this a news story - not even CBC Radio One. Alternative news sources have led the charge but this content is only online, where it competes for attention with myriad other important social, environmental, and political issues. The response from the co-op sector has been interesting. While some organisations (the CWCF included) have written letters and lobbied the government, many co-ops have been silent. Broadly, this can be explained two ways. Firstly, it seems that there is a general sense that this one can't be fought. The fact that the general public is essentially unaware of this issue lends credence to the prevailing idea that it may be best to wait until 2015. Secondly, the co-op sector is replete with individuals who are pushing their limits with their involvement. There are physical and monetary obstacles that are preventing many from trying to organise an effective campaign to fight the decision.
Despite the general unawareness of the public and the inability/unwillingness of the sector to reply, the Liberals appointed Mauril Bélanger as "Advocate for Co-operatives". Though no such formal title has existed in federal politics before, this shows the commitment the federal Liberal Party is taking on an important socio-economic issue. Though he has only recently taken on this position, he immediately started working on bringing a motion to the House of Commons to address the severe cuts that the Conservatives have made.
This motion, presented last Wednesday, set to establish a special committee on co-operatives. Bélanger's vision was to create a standing committee that would report to the House of Commons on the state of the co-operative sector in Canada. Formed of twelve parliamentarians, the committee would conduct analysis, bringing forth witnesses and experts from within the sector to determine whether of not continued economic support would be necessary. Moreover, it would address specifically how the state would provided assistance to co-ops (such as reinstating the CDI or creating a comparable programme).
Thankfully, it passed a
vote in Parliament. However, despite the cheery attitude of agreement,
there is some serious work that needs to be done to ensure that the
establishment of this committee will result in meaningful
social, economic, and political support in the long-term. Overwhelmingly, it appears that the NDP, the Liberals, the Bloc Québecois, and the Greens showed real support for the co-operative sector in a rather non-partisan way. The four parties demanded that the government reevaluate its position. However, the Conservatives, who were represented by Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Industry Mike Lake, spoke in platitudes about the co-op sector while simultaneously failing to explicitly state that they would continue formal support. In fact, Lake wanted to make an amendment to the committee so that its scope would be far wider than simply co-operatives, eclipsing the need that the special committee is designed to meet.
This was recognised by Malcolm Allen, NDP member for Welland and Critic for Agriculture Canada (and thus co-operatives), who stated that there is a significant difference between rhetoric and action. Moreover, he told an anecdote about how co-ops serve all Canadians - including his parents when they were new immigrants. He remarked that Canadians should "trust the credit union and be leery of the bank".
Overall, it is good news that the co-op motion passed. However, I am concerned about what the establishment of the committee will mean. Firstly, there are seven members of the committee chosen from the Conservative bench, against five from the opposition parties. This means that, should the government not wish to do anything, they can prevent a solution that would have positive benefits for the sector. Secondly, it was rather evident from the proceedings in the House of Commons that the Conservatives were only interested in paying lip service to the idea of supporting co-ops - presumably because it would have made for bad press if they refused to even talk about the possibility of helping co-operatives. Thirdly, before the committee even starts to function, each party must
appoint the requisite number of members, by Friday 8 June - and it's
not entirely clear that will happen. Finally, my concerns are with the fact that the government does not seem to recognise that co-ops aren't a fringe movement - they are an integral part of economies, rural and urban areas alike. Taking co-ops seriously means not only supporting the sector, but also examining the existing relationship between the neoliberal state and corporate interest. All told, I am cautiously optimistic about last Wednesday, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next six months.