NDP MP takes stock of co-ops in Nunavut
MP Hélène Leblanc visits Iqaluit and Cape Dorset on fact-finding mission
Canada’s co-operatives united under a new association in April, spanning English and French-language organizations for the first time in history.
The creation of the Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada, as the new national organization is called, means the time is right for the government to ramp up its support for co-ops as an alternative model for businesses throughout the country, says Hélène LeBlanc, the New Democratic Party’s federal critic for co-operatives.
“I think that gives this impetus at looking at co-operatives and social enterprise, as answering some of the economic challenges that we are facing for the last decade,” LeBlanc said.
She cited the global financial crisis of 2008, which she described as a “break-down of the traditional, let’s say, economic system.”
The NDP member of parliament for the Montreal-area riding of Lasalle-Émard visited Nunavut for the first time between July 15 and July 20, on a fact-finding trip to look at co-operatives in the territory.
The visit was one of many LeBlanc has made to co-operative associations throughout the country since she became the NDP’s co-op critic in August 2013.
“There’s a lot of possibilities for co-operatives as a business model, or social enterprises as a way to help answer community needs,” she told Nunatsiaq News July 18 in Iqaluit.
LeBlanc divided her five-day tour between Iqaluit and the hamlet of Cape Dorset, site of the long-running West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Ltd.
A meeting with the City of Iqaluit’s economic development committee – one of several meetings she had with government officials, co-ops, and entrepreneurs in her short visit to Nunavut – hit the point home that the territory’s economic activity is based on a “fly-in, fly-out” model.
“This does not always build a strong community,” she said. Transporting in materials not locally made, and flying out resources culled from the land and sea means “you’re depleting a community somewhere, and not building a community here.”
“Education is very important,” LeBlanc commented. “Because in business school, the co-operative model is not taught very much in depth, unless you go into a specific program.”
Teaching youth how the co-operative model works “would be a plus,” she said.
The opposition critic noted that the NDP’s foundations are rooted in the co-operative movement.
The party’s forebear was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, after all, which sprang out of Western Canada in the early 20th century, and later became the NDP in 1961.
This year’s creation of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada marks a historic first – the unification of co-operative and mutual businesses across the country, across linguistic lines.
The CMC represents some 9,000 co-operatives with 18 million members across the country
Creation of the national association “took a long time,” LeBlanc commented. “It didn’t happen overnight.”
Co-operatives, unlike traditional businesses with a specific group of owners, have members who co-operate for mutual economic, cultural or social benefit. The CCM defines them on its website as “voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership.”
Although LeBlanc admits co-ops don’t give a sure solution to economic problems, they are for “an economy that is sustainable, equitable, and 100-per cent Canadian,” she said.
“And that’s what my message is, to make sure that the federal government becomes a partner with provincial and territorial governments, and cities, in making sure that there is room for co-operatives,” she said. “To make sure that we give a place to co-operatives” through added funding and support.
The government closed a co-operative development initiative in 2012, which offered funding to start up co-operatives, LeBlanc said.
“That program was very fruitful,” she said, “but the funding was cut.”
“I want to make sure the government understands that it is an investment,” she said. “That when you help the cooperative sector, it’s investment that brings development. If you start a co-op, you’ll create local jobs. You’re answering community needs, and also those co-ops will encourage local suppliers and so on.”
Co-ops help keep businesses rooted and sustainable in communities where they began, she said.
The MP said she has seen much promise for the development of co-ops in other innovative forms. Added to co-ops for agricultural producers, consumers, workers, housing, and credit unions are co-ops for energy, as she has seen in Alberta, and arts and culture, as practiced for more than 50 years by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset.
“We are a great country that has so many possibilities, and a geography that is sometimes challenging, a demography that is also challenging,” LeBlanc said. “I feel that co-operatives have a great role to play at answering those challenges and turning them into opportunities.”
Part of the MP’s mission is to “continue to address questions to the government about what their plans are for the North,” she said, although she was quick to add the NDP already has solid representatives that stand for Northern Canada.
“We have excellent members,” she said, pointing to Dennis Bevington, MP for Northwest Territories and Nikki Ashton, MP for Manitoba’s huge northern riding of Churchill. The party also has several representatives for large northern ridings of Quebec and Ontario, and members “close to the realities of Northern regions” in Alberta and British Columbia, she said.
“They share with us their knowledge, and also gave me the taste to come and see (Nunavut) for myself,” LeBlanc said.
Beyond her focus on co-operatives, LeBlanc said her party is working hard to prepare for the next federal election, which the government may call at any time, by Oct. 19, 2015.
“My goal is to be prepared by January 2015. And we’ll see what happens,” she said.
The NDP has yet to find a candidate to run in Nunavut, she said. Party members in Iqaluit were happy to meet her, she added, “because it’s been a while since they had a visit” from an NDP member of Parliament.