Insight. Innovation. Industry.
Business / Community Development /  •

Set in motion

Canada's cooperative sector should receive a leg up from Motion M-100, a strategy to boost support for co-ops.

Nearly two years ago in Canada, Parliament voted unanimously to adopt Motion M-100, designed to help boost the nation’s cooperative sector. A collaboration with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), Motion M-100 was tabled by Quebec Liberal MP Alexandra Mendès and passed unanimously in the House of Commons.

The objective of the motion was to ensure the federal government helps cooperatives continue to grow and thrive by devising a strategy to promote and support the sector while providing periodic progress reports on pre-established goals and targets. After nearly two years of consultation, the long-anticipated policy paper is being released publicly, guiding Ottawa’s continued support of the cooperative sector. The comprehensive paper encompasses such issues as how the cooperative business model can support government priorities, including Indigenous economic development, women and youth entrepreneurship, clean tech and renewable energy and community-based innovations addressing youth unemployment and food accessibility.

Cooperatives play a key economic role in Canada, helping communities across the country grow and prosper. They operate in a variety of fields: housing, education, public utilities, agriculture, among many others. Along with the economic upsides, cooperatives also provide a more people-focused, principled business model that isn’t driven solely by profits. Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC), based in Ottawa, states that cooperative businesses provide goods and services to more than 21 million members, while supporting 195,000 jobs in the entire sector.

When it comes to co-ops, Quebec is the most successful province, with thriving cooperative businesses across the province, even in fields like emergency medical services. For example, there are eight active paramedic cooperatives, with seven falling under The Fédération des Coopératives des Paramédics, which represents more than 1,000 workers. In addition to paramedic services, the Fédération des coopératives de santé et de services à domicile du Québec groups 60 cooperatives and non-profit organizations that offer home care services and personal assistance to more than 35,000 individuals. Collectively, health services cooperatives in Quebec treat roughly 178,000 people, reports CMC.

The success of the cooperative model in Quebec is linked to the support extended by the provincial government. “They’ve got a great deal with their own government; that’s the most important starting point,” says Brendan Denovan, CMC’s communications manager. “There’s a big hope in Quebec that M-100 will create a better environment in Canada overall.”

More funding needed

Securing better funding is an issue Motion M-100 is also looking to resolve, as cooperatives currently don’t have the same playing field as non-co-op businesses, which can access government-backed financing, says Denovan. One example of a successful co-op that hit a financing wall is Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), a Canada-wide cooperative that developed a global solution for cities looking to become more environmentally friendly. It did so by creating a software solution that helps calculate a city’s carbon footprint and draw up efficiency plans. Run by roughly 40 expert consultants who aspire to tap into the global market, the co-op is currently at an expansion standstill due to limited funding. It is anticipated that Motion M-100 will help ensure entities like SSG can execute their vision without having to rely on venture capital investments, which could risk compromising the social benefit of its work, Denovan says.

The uphill battle for recognition and federal support is also not lost on credit unions. As highlighted in the Community & Economic Impact Report, published by the Canadian Credit Union Association (CCUA), credit unions and caisses populaires serve upwards of five million members and contribute
more than $6.5 billion directly and indirectly to Canada’s GDP outside of Quebec. Can Motion M-100 help credit unions grow? Indirectly, yes. “Motion M-100 isn’t directly tied to credit unions, though many credit unions stepped up and submitted feedback to the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada survey,” says Denovan. “The small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) report tells us that cooperatives are three times more likely to bank with and get financing from a credit union. So, the potential of Motion M-100 is to help bolster an environment that’s conducive to more cooperation among cooperatives.”

A credit union that submitted feedback during the consultation process for Motion M-100 was Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (525,000 members, $26.4 billion in assets). “Our vision is to redefine wealth in our community and cooperatives play a very important role in that,” says Elvy Del Bianco, Vancity’s cooperative portfolio manager. Co-ops, adds Del Bianco, “are vital in keeping capital local, employing people and being resilient during difficult economic times. Raising their profiles as a viable business model is important to us.”

“Our vision is to redefine wealth in our community and cooperatives play a very important role in that.” – Elvy Del Bianco

Vancity is a strong advocate of cooperatives in British Columbia. Among the credit union’s efforts, it recently launched a boot camp meant to help businesses familiarize themselves with the cooperative model. Called “Co-op Right Now,” this four-day program is aimed at business people who are just considering embracing the co-op model, all the way to those working in long-established cooperatives who need a refresher on marketing or governance, says Del Bianco. The program has been so successful that Vancity is turning people away due to the demand. “We’re currently working towards doing it on a more frequent basis to accommodate more,” Del Bianco says.

Decline outside Quebec

There is a strong need to establish new cooperatives. Although there has been a steady increase in co-ops in Quebec, the rest of the country is seeing a decline. However, the figures aren’t accurate and data collection is another weak link Motion M-100 is meant to improve. “We know general figures around cooperatives but we’re still not precisely where we need to be. How many people do they employ? How many taxes do they pay?” CCUA’s data analytics leader Kevin Morris asks. “When we advocate to the government we want to be able to say, ‘here’s how big the cooperative sector is in our economy, so don’t ignore us,’” Morris says.

“The potential of Motion M-100 is to help bolster an environment that’s conducive to more cooperation among cooperatives.” – Brendan Denovan

Out of all the hurdles facing cooperatives, one of the biggest continues to be lack of awareness. While government support and data collection are of vast importance, for cooperatives to be truly successful, average Canadians need to know they’re out there and need to be aware of the benefits that stem from supporting their business. Ultimately, can Motion M-100 also help increase the number of Canadians exposed to cooperatives? Those in the sector remain hopeful. “Motion M-100 has led to almost every new MP being introduced to cooperatives and to the important role they play in our country. That is a great victory in helping to raise the status of co-ops,” Denovan says. ◊