Big idea No. 1: co-operatives

This is part two of a series on local economic development in the Cowichan region.

The gap between the one per cent and the 99 per cent is widening, as the gains made by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations are slowly chiseled away by senior levels of government pursuing questionable economic policies and global corporations intent on increasing the bottom line.

This is the story in much of the advanced industrialized world, and Canada is no exception. The wealthiest 86 Canadian families now hold the same amount of wealth as the poorest 11.4 million Canadians combined.

Is this a problem? The evidence demonstrates conclusively that societies with higher levels of income inequality suffer in the long run, with more severe health and social problems.

Sadly, we are seeing signs of such problems close to home. A recent report from Island Health found the Cowichan region lagging behind the Island and provincial average on a range of social and health indicators, from children in care and need of protection to dependency on employment insurance and social assistance.

So what is the solution? While we argue that a more progressive taxation system and increased social and education funding will improve the situation, deeper changes to how we organize our economy are also needed to get to the root of the problem.

Around the world, men and women are increasingly turning to the co-operative, a well-established business model that provides us with an effective tool in leveling the playing field and fairly distributing wealth.

Co-operatives are businesses owned and controlled by the people who work there or the people who use their services. And they are democratic, with each member having one vote.

Often ignored as a business model, co-operatives already play a crucial role in the Canadian economy. In B.C. alone there are roughly 700 co-operatives with assets of over $50 billion and employing more than 13,000 people.

In other parts of the world, co-operatives are the dominant economic model.

In the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, which is one of Europe’s wealthiest areas, historically characterized by full employment and high wages, co-operatives account for onethird of GDP and support a wide range of value-added industries in textiles, ceramics, food products, construction, automotive, and industrial engineering. Like many other jurisdictions where co-operatives have grown in importance, Emilia-Romagna’s regional government offers an array of supports to encourage these types of businesses.

The New York City government recently launched a $1.2 million program to develop employee-owned co-operative businesses, part of a larger effort to reduce income inequality and create good jobs for low-income people.

The program will coordinate education and training resources while providing technical, legal and financial assistance for new and existing co-ops. It will help start up 28 new worker co-operatives, assist another 20 existing co-operatives, and support the creation of 234 new jobs.

Local governments in other parts of the U.S. from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to California to Mississippi are taking a similar approach with co-operatives.

Could co-operatives be the answer to our economic development challenges in the Cowichan region?

With the CVRD’s economic development function currently under review and the newly elected board eager to explore new ideas, could the co-operative become part of local government’s vision for the regional economy?

The Cowichan region already has a strong history with the co-op business model. The first co-op on Vancouver Island and the first dairy co-op in B.C. – Cowichan Creamery – was founded here in 1895. Today Island Farms carries on that tradition under the Agripur umbrella and is one of the only sectors of local agriculture that produces more than we consume in the region. Other co-ops, such as Peninsula and Mid-Island play a leading role in their retail fuels sales while credit unions such as Coastal Community play an important role in our financial industry.

The co-operative has seen resurgence in the CVRD since the creation of a Regional Co-op Council in 2012. New coops have been established in renewable energy, food distribution, seniors’ care, and film production, to name just a few.

Could the CVRD allocate a portion of its economic development budget to support the start-up and growth of co-operatives, as other local governments are doing? Could this take the form of a new program to provide financial and technical support for new co-op start-ups and co-op development?

We think so, and argue that our local governments should make co-operative businesses a centre-piece of their future economic development efforts if we hope to address the growing problem of inequality while creating good jobs and sustainable businesses at home.

Rob Douglas is a councillor for the Municipality of North Cowichan and director for the CVRD. Roger Hart is a member of the CVRD’s Economic Development and Environment Commissions. The views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the CVRD, its Commissions or the Municipality of North Cowichan.