Dr. Marc-Andre Pigeon (PhD) is the director of the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at USask. (Photo: Dave Stobbe)

Rebranded co-operatives centre focused on future

More than 50 co-op practitioners and researchers gathered on October 16 during Co-op Week to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the newly rebranded Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan.

The celebration marked a new strategic vision of the centre (formerly known as the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives), under the leadership of Dr. Marc-André Pigeon (PhD).

“I think these values hold great appeal for the youngest generation of co-op practitioners and researchers, the millennials and Generation Z,” said Pigeon. “The Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives is looking ahead to the next 35 years, and while we are focused on important bread-and-butter policy and operational questions of taxation and co-operative governance, we’re also looking at broader issues of sustainability, innovation, and economic justice, to articulate the role for co-operatives in solving problems in these areas.”

Melissa Hoover, founding executive director of the American non-profit Democracy at Work Institute—a national organization dedicated to building the field of worker co-operatives—came from San Francisco to deliver the keynote speech. She stressed the need for co-operative organizations to focus as much on co-operative values as economic returns in an era of ever-widening economic inequality, ecological crisis, and political unrest.

“The key lesson of co-operatives is to avoid polarizing approaches to problem solving,” she stated. “Economics can’t be separated from culture or social systems. For instance, Bill Gates did not become a billionaire on his own. He was supported by a favourable policy environment, an education system, a family structure, systems of land use and land appropriation, a prepared workforce, and economic, social, and other capital. Our work in the co-operative sector needs to be aware of all these systems, connecting to them and leveraging them in service of our values.”

In welcoming the audience to the celebration, Federated Co-operatives Ltd. (FCL) CEO Scott Banda likened FCL and other federations to balls of elastic bands, which stay together even when one or two bands snap, but always need new bands to be added. FCL, the western Canadian co-operative federation with $10.7 billion in revenue in 2018, has been providing significant operational funding to the centre since its inception in 1984.

Banda praised the centre “because the centre’s research helps to inform and guide the co-op sector and fosters important discussions about the co-op model to ensure its sustainability and relevance.”

Hoover noted that there is a new and growing co-operative movement today, particularly in the U.S.

“We can characterize the first wave of early 20th century co-operatives as mostly rural and agricultural or tied to the energy sector, and the second wave—in the 1960s and ’70s—as utopian and designed to serve elites … But today’s co-operatives are being started by the economically and socially marginalized: immigrants, people of colour, and women.”

While celebrating the past, Pigeon said the revitalized centre is firmly focused on the future.

“We were very pleased with the relaunch. It was an opportunity to reflect on how co-operatives have shaped our past and can shape our future, especially around some of the big challenges of our times,” Pigeon said. “And with our home in the policy school, we can inform the policy environment in a way that provides the supporting environment that Melissa stressed is so important for all co-operative efforts.”

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