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

Working together for the common good

Aboriginal communities are embracing cooperatives in novel and creative ways

Michael Beland, manager of cooperative development for Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC), is passionate about the impact co-ops are having on Aboriginal communities.

“The cooperative model is based on [addressing] a common need with a collective response,” he says, “so we think it’s a good way for Aboriginal communities to fulfill their needs and also to find ways that fit well with their culture.”

Aboriginal communities – meaning First Nations, Inuit and Métis – appear to be thinking the same way. Over the past four years, the Co-operative Development Foundation, which operates a program to assist aboriginal communities in Canada, has received 52 requests for funding to explore the possibility of co-op start-ups. (Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada delivers this program on behalf of CDF.) Two of the largest cooperative federations operate in Aboriginal strongholds: the Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. with 32 co-ops and 22,000 people in the remote Inuit and Dene communities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and La Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec with 14 co-ops and 9,000 people in the mostly Inuit communities of northern Quebec.

A directory produced in 2012 by the Canadian Co-operative Association lists 123 co-ops, including credit unions, servicing Aboriginal needs across the country. It is already outdated.

“We know most of [the co-ops], but we cannot say honestly a solid number,” says Beland, noting that the co-op movement is fluid.

Beland believes a number of factors influence the cooperative approach to business in Aboriginal communities. Culture, a tradition of working together, isolation and the need to address social concerns all feed into the popularity of co-ops.

“[A co-op] is an enterprise,” says Beland. “It has a really deep economic impact but also social impact because it’s everybody that is getting together. And when you have your AGM in a little community … and everybody’s a member of the co-op … they’re not talking only about the situation of the enterprise, they’re also talking about the situation in the community. What are the new needs? What’s going on and what are we going to do with the power that our enterprise gives us to have an impact on the community?”

“We believe that our youth are an untapped source and they will be entering the workforce as confident, educated and responsible individuals who are going to dispel the stereotypical view of our people”

—Diane Welby, manager of lending, Me-Dian Credit Union

Often, co-op members choose to invest their profits in community projects, such as recreational facilities and health services. Other options available are member dividends or investing money back in the cooperatives. The decision is made democratically by the members.

Co-ops with strong Aboriginal ties can also be found in urban centres, operating in pockets of high Aboriginal density, because often that population experiences poor living conditions.

“I think co-ops are there for the values, because they believe they can alleviate poverty,” says Beland. He notes that CMC’s efforts to work with co-ops in Aboriginal communities go beyond providing money for exploratory work. The organization, which was created in January 2014 by the Canadian Co-operative Association, also provides information, expertise and guidance.

“We let people know about the best practices and to get inspired by what’s going on in other communities,” says Beland.

The work being done at the following three Aboriginal co-ops is decidedly serving as inspiration for the Aboriginal co-op movement.

Me-Dian Credit Union of Manitoba

Flexibility, a customized approach and cultural sensitivity are three tools employed by Me-Dian Credit Union of Manitoba (3,610 members) to meet the needs of its primarily Aboriginal clientele. “We are a population that is growing. At some time in the near future there will be one in four Aboriginal people entering the workforce,” says Diane Welby, manager of lending services for Me-Dian Credit Union. “We believe that our youth are an untapped source and they will be entering the workforce as confident, educated and responsible individuals who are going to dispel the stereotypical view of our people. Our board has been mindful of this in their strategic planning processes … to ensure that we are going in the right direction.”

That planning has prompted Me-Dian to provide bursaries, scholarships, in-school workshops and donations to Aboriginal activities in the province in keeping with the social responsibility aspect of its value statement. Presently, Winnipeg, where Me-Dian’s head office is located, has the highest urban Aboriginal population in
the country.

While Me-Dian Credit Union is not the only financial services cooperative that works with Aboriginal populations, as far as Welby is aware, it is the only credit union that has an all-Aboriginal board and Aboriginal-only voting members. The Manitoba Métis Federation opened the doors to a closed-bond credit union for Métis in 1978. Members of closed-bond credit unions share a distinct association based on religion, profession and culture. years later, the credit union was renamed Me-Dian (a combination of Métis and Indian), and services were offered to all Aboriginal peoples in Manitoba. Today, Me-Dian also accepts non-Aboriginals as non-voting members.

Because it is run by Aboriginals, Me-Dian has a unique perspective on the challenges that face this demographic, including isolated communities and difficulty in getting financing. Me-Dian has adopted special practices that allow it to provide commercial loans and bridge financing to band councils as well as personal loans to band members. It embraces technology to make it easier for those living in isolated communities to sign loan papers. Me-Dian has also encouraged direct deposit of pay cheques, allowing workers to access their money through banking machines instead of having to pay fees to cash cheques at local businesses. The credit union operates a second branch in Grand Rapids, in northern Manitoba, having recently relocated to the Misipawistik Cree Nation band office.

Me-Dian has adopted special practices that allow it to provide commercial loans and bridge financing to band councils as well as personal loans to band members. It embraces technology to make it easier for those living in isolated communities to sign loan papers

Me-Dian has seven board members, all Aboriginal women. Welby says stability in governance has allowed for the continued success of the credit union, which has plans for future expansion. Its membership is growing, with an annual patronage refund usually paid out. There are 13 employees, the majority of whom are Aboriginal and two of whom work in Grand Rapids.

Welby feels that mainstream credit unions and those geared to the Aboriginal population can learn from each other when it comes to adopting best practices. “I think working together, there’s always evolving change, there’s new products and services that come out and we do work collectively within the credit union system to move forward on different initiatives,” she says. “That way, we all give our customers the best service.”

Torngat Fish Producers Cooperative

General Manager Keith Watts isn’t shy about crediting a board that listens to its employees as one of the key reasons for Torngat Fish Producers Cooperative’s longevity in the struggling east coast fishing industry. “We are constantly changing in order to adapt. Our board is very effective,” says Watts, who has held his position for the past 10 years. “We’ve been in operation since 1981 and that we still manage to operate – that in itself is a feat. Our success is that we’re still here and we strive to be here in the future.”

In 1979, residents in the six communities that comprised the Torngat electoral district in northern Labrador voted to form a cooperative to enable them to receive an offshore provincial shrimp licence and to take over the fishing operations run by the province on the north coast. The co-op would also represent the fishers and plant workers.

“The Inuit would be the beneficiary and a co-op fits nicely into the cultural aspect of a shared operation where everybody is involved,” says Watts. “It’s quite similar to the Inuit values.”

The entire commercial fishing activity on the north coast runs through the co-op, which purchases, processes and markets all the commercial species available. The co-op also partners with the Nunatsiaq government for commercial fishing in Nunavut Territory. “The co-op is an advantage because we supply employment and we are the only buyer on the north coast where they can sell their fish,” says Watts. Not only does the co-op honour the minimum price set by the province’s standing panel for buying fish but when the season and market allow, the co-op pays more.

The co-op operates a char plant in Nain, as well as snow crab and turbot plants in Makkovik. It is now down to two buying stations from three. When the co-op was formed, the salmon and char industries employed the majority of fishers, but a moratorium imposed on salmon in 1992 and the lower level at which the char fishery now exists have had an impact. The co-op employs 200, matching wages paid at southern-based fish plants. Membership in the co-op sits at about 600.

Watts says since he became general manager, dividends have not been paid out. Instead, the profit – as well as the revenue generated from the offshore shrimp licence – go back into the fishery and help sustain the operation of the plants. That money invested back in the business ensures further employment and sustainable communities, he says.

“Right now growth is not possible, but in the future we intend to grow. At this point we’re sustaining what we have and trying to make a go at what we are doing,” says Watts.

he Torngat Fish Producers Cooperative has a lot to offer non-Aboriginal cooperatives, he notes. “From us they can learn how to operate in an environment that is very remote [where] the window of opportunity for fishing is very short. We have to be very, very frugal in order to maintain our operations. The bottom line is we have to make money in order to sustain ourselves and exist. So what they can learn is how we operate and how we’ve been able to for the last 30-plus years.”

Native Inter-Tribal Housing Cooperative

When the Native Inter-Tribal Housing Cooperative (NITHCo) branched out last year to start Four Feathers Housing Cooperative, Lloyd Butch Stevenson led the way. It was fitting that he did so. After all, Stevenson helped start NITHCo.

Stevenson and his wife, who is Aboriginal, were approached by another couple in 1981 to help start a housing co-op for Aboriginal people in London, Ontario. “Most times in the inner city where Aboriginal people live, the housing is not that good,” says Stevenson. “What we thought we could do was get housing that was affordable, safe and easy to live in.”

“We’re a little different than our neighbours. A housing co-op is run a lot differently than a private landlord”

—Lloyd Butch Stevenson

The co-op was the way to go. It provided individual and collective ownership, with members working together to better the property. The board consists of members who set priorities and make budgeting decisions. The co-op has an office coordinator who helps connect residents to the appropriate agencies, whether to meet health, educational, social or financial needs. Board members also act as resources.

“We’re a little different than our neighbours. A housing co-op is run a lot differently than a private landlord,” says Stevenson. “We understand sometimes our members have problems and we work with our members whenever possible to assist them, just like they basically do on any First Nation.”

The community aspect of NITHCo is something that non-Aboriginal housing co-ops can learn about, says Stevenson. But he is also quick to point out that NITHCo based its operations on Twin Pines, a non-Aboriginal housing co-op in London, which also provided guidance and advice. “Everybody can learn from somebody else’s mistakes and somebody else’s successes,” says Stevenson.

NITHCo consists of 37 single-family homes, seven duplexes and 15 townhouses. Half or more of those occupying each
unit must be Aboriginal. Usually 35 to 40 per cent of residents hail from the nearby Oneida Nation of the Thames. However, says Stevenson, no one can live in NITHCo without residing in London for at least six months. Rent is charged at 25 per cent of a resident’s income at a minimum of $300 per month. Home to its first occupants in 1983, NITHCo was built in five phases with support from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Mortgages on the first and second phases are almost paid off and phases three and four will be paid in full in nine years.

While most homeowners would be celebrating a debt-free status, ironically it’s a cause for concern for the co-op. Rules state that once a property is completely paid off, rents can no longer be subsidized, forcing those – mostly single mothers – who can’t afford the regular market rate to seek accommodation elsewhere. And there’s not much chance they will find anything in London where the co-op housing waiting list sits at 2,800 families.

In partial response, Four Feathers, a 33-unit apartment with one and two-bedroom suites, fully opened in the summer of 2013. It will provide some relief, as five of its one- bedroom suites are offered with a subsidy. Half or more of the occupants in each unit must be Aboriginal. Meanwhile, Stevenson is campaigning for rent subsidies to be available for housing co-ops even after mortgages are paid off. “We want these people to be subsidized so they don’t have to move out on the streets,” he says.

The co-op advantage

There is no doubt that cooperatives fit well within the cultural context of Aboriginal communities. But it goes beyond that, says Michael Beland.

“We must find ways to be more connected with humans, to be more democratic and to distribute the wealth we produce [in an equitable manner that helps us all],” he says. “These are values – really Canadian values – that … really connect with me. Cooperatives are there to build a better society, to build a better world, to build a better Canada.” ◊