From left: Dr. Jen Budney (PhD) is a professional research associate in the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at USask. Dr. Marc-André Pigeon (PhD) is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at USask. (Photos: David Stobbe)

USask celebrates expansion of co-operatives programming

In May 2021, when Miranda Flury received a certificate recognizing her as a certified co-operative director, she was one of the first 48 Canadians to ever receive such a designation.

By Erica Schindel

Flury, the secretary of the board of the Fort St. John Co-op in northeastern British Columbia, was a member of the first cohort of graduates of the Advanced Co-operative Governance program, offered by the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives (CCSC) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), in collaboration with the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (JSGS) Executive Education unit. Within hours of receiving her certificate, she had added her new designation to her LinkedIn profile. 

“I’m very proud to be in the business of supporting co-operatives, and the designation provides additional credibility in this space,” Flury explained.

As the United Nations celebrated International Day of Co-operatives on July 3, co-operatives around the world were busy helping communities meet their needs and aspirations in areas as diverse as health, agriculture, production, retail, finance, housing, employment, educati on, and social services. Canada’s nearly 6,000 non-financial co-operatives and close to 700 credit unions are a part of a global movement of more than three million co-ops and a billion members.

Co-operatives are businesses collectively owned by the people who use them, rather than faraway shareholders seeking returns, focusing on member and community needs before profits.

“In uncertain economic times, co-operatives have proven to be more stable than investor-owned firms, because they make decisions differently,” said Dr. Jen Budney (PhD), professional research associate at the CCSC. “This is why interest in the co-operative movement is growing today, not just in Canada, but globally.”

The CCSC, originally established at USask in 1984 as the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, is committed to strengthening the co-operative sector, nationally and internationally, by providing co-operative organizations and policymakers with the data and conceptual tools they need to continue developing solutions to complex challenges facing the world today.

To that end, the CCSC developed Canada’s first-ever board director designation tailored to co-operative board members.

“There are quite a few advanced training programs for corporate board directors in Canada, but none of them consider the co-operative business model, which has a host of governance challenges that investor-owned firms don’t have,” explained CCSC Executive Director Dr. Marc-André Pigeon (PhD). “We saw a need for a different kind of education, and that’s what we’ve created.”

In June 2021, the CCSC issued 48 certificates to directors from the Co-operative Retailing System (CRS) and Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL), who all received the Co-opD.D designation, which stands for Co-operative Director. The certificates were issued by JSGS, a provincial policy school with unique ties to both USask and the University of Regina. 

Everyone who received the Co-opD.D designation participated in a three-day online workshop on Advanced Co-operative Governance created and facilitated by Pigeon and Budney, along with JSGS Executive-in-Residence and former Saskatchewan Deputy Minister Ken Acton. As part of the program, students were required to complete a three-hour multiple-choice and long-answer exam, and score at least 70 per cent.

“The exam wasn’t easy!” said Budney. “Participants were given very complex scenarios that a co-op in the CRS might face, and they had to demonstrate their understanding of the role of governance in these scenarios and what a board should do to ensure the long-term viability of operations, keeping in mind that co-ops always have multiple bottom lines.”

Co-operatives are democratically controlled, with each member receiving one vote. In most co-operatives, governance is delegated to an elected board of directors, who are chosen from the general membership.

Co-ops in the CRS, which include grocery stores, gas stations, cardlocks, feedlots, hardware stores, and more, may be Canada’s best-known co-operative organizations, with their trademark red-and-white CO-OP logo. Because these organizations are responsible to thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual members and manage operations generating millions to hundreds of millions of dollars for their local communities, it is essential that they are governed well.

John Stevenson, board president of Sherwood Co-op, which serves the greater Regina area, was one of the 48 graduates of the 2021 Advanced Co-operative Governance program.

“Our Co-op, like all Co-ops, brings a social contract as well as a financial contract to our members and our communities,” he said. “We as board members know that our communities are changing and evolving. We need to make sure our governance is staying relevant and representative of our communities, and that includes a regular evaluation of the effectiveness of our governance.”

Plans are underway to expand the program to co-ops outside the CRS, while also continuing to work with FCL on workshops designed specifically for the CRS.

Flury, like Stevenson, found the course stimulating as well as practical.

“The practical takeaways I got for the co-operative board I sit on are unmatched,” she said. “I have already updated my governance committee annual plan to incorporate the discussions we had during the workshops.”