Just like Catalonia or Emilia Romagna region of Italy, Québec province of Canada is one of the flagships of contemporary solidarity economy. Although the cooperative movement of the region goes way back to the early 20th century, the new cooperativism differs drastically from the traditional one: It is more grass-rooted, autonomously organized and democratically controlled. Of course, in times of volatile political climate, this does not mean that we are in a cooperative heaven.
Québec is often held to be the poster child for cooperative economy—and for well-deserved reasons: According to the Quebec Council of Co-operatives and Mutual Associations (Conseil Québécois de la Coopération et de la Mutualité, CQCM), 3,000 cooperative enterprises and mutual associations existed in the province in 2014, with some 8 million members, more than 116,000 employees and 39 billion (in Canadian dollars) of turnover. This number includes worker, worker-shareholder, consumer, producer and solidarity cooperatives. While the former forms might be well-known around the world, this last form, i.e. solidarity cooperatives – sometimes known as multi-stakeholder or social cooperatives— are less common; they are relatively new in Québec, too. Solidarity cooperatives bring together a broader base of membership, including worker-members, consumer-members and solidarity/community-members. The solidarity cooperative form was legally developed in 1997 and they became quickly popular.
The flourishing solidarity cooperatives
Housing cooperatives account for the bulk of the cooperatives in Québec (1290 cooperatives with 27,000 housing units), with the rest active in finance, agro-food, manufacturing, services, energy, art and education. Some of these latter function in familiar milieus such as food and beverage (consumer cooperatives with linked cooperative grocery stores, cooperative farms, cafés, bars and restaurants), media and telecommunication (more than 30 coops operate in cable and telecom provision), printing and publishing, health care (44 cooperative health clinics), manufacturing (clothing, furniture, shoe-making) and forestry. Indeed, forestry is one sector where worker cooperatives are concentrated and has a long history in going back to late 1930s.
Around 45 worker cooperatives exist in the forestry sector currently, covering activities in tree nursery, silviculture, harvesting and processing. Individual cooperatives are managed and run by their worker-members and distribute profit dividends often based on labor contribution. Almost all of them also take part in the Québec Federation of Forestry Cooperatives (Fédération Québécoise des Cooperatives Forestières, FQCF). The federation has the right to negotiate directly with the Ministry regarding the quota of development work to be allocated to cooperatives in public forests since 1985—which provided a crucial leverage to cooperatives in competing against big industry for forest concessions.
What is notable about contemporary cooperativism in Québec is that it is young and fast. 1,571 new cooperatives were formed between 1995 and 2005, the majority of which were solidarity and worker cooperatives. The survival rate of cooperatives outshines private sector, with 75% survival rate after three years.
Yet worker cooperatives are found in somewhat less conventional activities as well, such as ambulance services, funeral services, educational services (e.g. student cooperatives and cooperative school libraries/bookstores) and day cares. Québec Ambulance Technicians Cooperative (Coopérative de Techniciens Ambulanciers du Québec, CTAQ), for instance, currently has more than 400 members and operates more than 50 vehicles in four centers in the Québec City region. The cooperative was founded in 1988 by 106 members following a decade-long struggle of the ambulance technicians union. The union’s struggle for improving working conditions and increasing control over the quality and organization of work culminated in the taking over of 4 ambulance service companies and the formation of CTAQ, which expanded over time by other take overs.
What is notable about this more contemporary cooperativism in Québec is that it is young and fast, so to speak. Some statistics to illustrate: of the 2,589 non-financial cooperatives that existed in 2005, 60% had been established after 1980. 1,571 new cooperatives were formed between 1995 and 2005, the majority of which were solidarity (more on this later) and worker cooperatives. In addition, the survival rate of cooperatives outshines private sector, with 75% survival rate after three years (compared to 48% in private businesses), 62% after 5 years (35% in private businesses) and 44% after ten years (20% in private businesses).
Yet another, and perhaps more important, feature that distinguishes Québec’s contemporary cooperative economy is its break with the province’ older tradition of cooperativism. The younger wave of cooperatives is marked with smaller sizes—they are nowhere as big as the Coop Federée or Desjardins, but they have a tendency to multiply and be replicated more easily. Indeed they outweigh the older cooperatives by number (though not by membership). The new cooperatives also stem from different concerns and respond to different needs. Contemporary cooperativism in Quebec is more solidly rooted in demands for autonomy, democratic control and worker participation and a broader politics of democratizing the economy. Most of this new generation of cooperatives reflect an increased desire to gain control over conditions of work and quality of work life—this is especially the case with worker and worker-shareholder cooperatives. They also have a different kind of relationship with the QC state: they are more likely to organize in autonomous networks or regional associations that allow more space for guarding their independence, rather than centralized federations closely aligned with the state as was the case with the older tradition of cooperativism.
This is not to say that regional and provincial organizations formally recognized by the state are not important. There are indeed numerous organizations that bring together cooperatives, varying in form, scale of activity and relationship with the state. In addition to the worker coop federations in forestry and ambulance services mentioned above, a third provincial federation, Le Reseau Coop (Coop Network), is for all the remaining types cooperatives managed by the workers: worker, worker-shareholder, solidarity and producer cooperatives. Formally organized as a solidarity cooperative itself, Reseau provides specialised assistance at various stages of setting up and developing cooperatives.
Québec Ambulance Technicians Cooperative has more than 400 members and operates more than 50 vehicles in the Québec City region. The cooperative was founded in 1988 by 106 members, after a decade-long struggle of the ambulance technicians union.
Another network that direct support exclusively to cooperatives is the Regional Development Cooperatives (Coopératives de Developpement Regional-CDR) network. A total of 11 in number, CDRs are regionally –rather than sectorally—organised; they similarly provide assistance to cooperatives, support their development and help create new ones in the region they serve.
CDRs are further integrated into the Québec Council of Co-operatives and Mutual Associations (Conseil Québécois de la Coopération et de la Mutualité, CQCM) at the provincial level. CQCM is a platform for sectoral and regional cooperatives and mutuals, representing their interests as a whole in provincial policy making. 18 federation-type organizations are the members of CQCM: in addition to the CDR network, cooperatives giants such as Coop Fédérée, Agropur, and Desjardins, as well as Le Reseau and sectoral cooperative federations (funeral, paramedic, housing, forestry, food, health, educational services, insurance, telecommunications). CQCM also provides training and support for cooperative development and is recently focusing its efforts on facilitating inter-cooperative collaboration.
Unsurprisingly, how useful these networks and organisations prove on the ground, varies. Their support is often found valuable especially at the stage of start-up and in terms of accessing financial and informational resources. But they can also be too bureaucratic and difficult to navigate. More grassroots and self-organised –and less formal— networks and collaborative forms developed by cooperatives themselves exist alongside them.
A worker-coop farm I’ve got to know, Les Jardins de la Resistance, for instance, is part of an informal network of cooperative and/or small-scale farms who pool their skills and resources to take on the particular challenges they face: apart from collaborating on marketing or purchasing inputs, they also collectively design and build machinery suited for the type of cultivation they do.
Batîment 7, a self-governed collective space in the working-class neighborhood Point St. Charles of Montréal, houses a network of cooperatives that are organically linked to each other: the cooperative grocery store, pub, youth arcade, auto-mechanic shop and others act together and support each other. Batîment 7 also has space to offer to other cooperatives. Other examples include the (loose) network of cooperatives in the Gaspésie region and that of Inuit cooperatives in Northern Québec.
Another, feature of Québec’s contemporary cooperative economy is its break with the province’ older tradition of cooperativism. They outweigh the older cooperatives by number and stem from different concerns. They are solidly rooted in demands for autonomy, democratic control and worker participation and politics of democratizing the economy.
History and Infrastructure
The Québecois success in cooperativism took hold within a specific constellation of movements, institutions and policies. The first pillar of this constellation is the provincial state. The QC state has always had a close, and somewhat particular, relationship with the cooperative sector. The state’s conditional love for cooperatives was very much shaped with QC nationalism and the aspiration to build a francophone economy.
It was also mostly directed to gigantic cooperative federations in finance and agriculture. Things started to change in the 1980: the Parti Québecois government started directing support especially for worker and worker-shareholder cooperatives. This was not because the government was in favor of a democratic economy, but rather to offload the burden on the public budget. The era was one of severe budgetary crisis for the provincial government; making people “their own boss” was an effective way to pull the social policy bill down—rather than keeping people on the social benefit roll, the government pushed cooperatives as an employment strategy.
This push consisted mostly of legislation and institutions geared towards providing support and resources to cooperatives. The network of cooperative development organisations established then, formed the basis of today’s CDR network. While not exclusively geared towards cooperatives, the Community Economic Development Corporations (Corporations de Développement Economique Communautaire-CDEC) established in the same era also evolved to become an important pillar of the cooperative ecosystem.
CDECs came out of a push led by social movements to rethink development in the midst of –and as a response to—the economic crisis. They were formed primarily in impoverished neighborhoods of urban centers with the direct engagement of local community actors and the labour movement. The idea behind CDECs is to bring together the private sector, the labour movement and the community/social movements (they have representatives from all three groups on their boards) to work collaboratively towards local development; by providing financial support to non-profits, small businesses and cooperatives that are typically excluded from financial markets and government support.
In 1980 the Parti Québecois government started directing support especially for worker and worker-shareholder cooperatives. This was not because the government was in favour of a democratic economy, but rather to offload the burden on the public budget. Making people “their own boss” was an effective way to pull the social policy bill down.
Chantier: Let’s Dare Solidarity
But perhaps the most significant actor in the contemporary landscape of Québec’s cooperative economy is the Chantier. The French word chantier literally translates to construction site–and does not evoke pleasant feelings for those of us whose cities are ripped apart by real estate development and urban gentrification. But in Québec chantier has an additional connotation: Chantier de l’Économie Sociale is the mainstay of the social economy the province is renowned for, including (but not only) cooperatives.
The roots of the Chantier go back to another critical time in Québec’s history, when the government convened a conference on the province’s economic and social future in 1996. The conference was meant to be a way to respond to another economic crisis, then that of the 1990s, marked with rising unemployment and public budget deficits. To be fair, such consultation-based policy making is within the political tradition of the QC.
Yet this particular conference featured the participation of community groups and social movements in addition to the traditional business, state and union representation. The conference was followed by the Summit on the Economy and Employment six months after, with the similar range of participants and aim of a broad consultation on the province’s economic and fiscal crisis.
Three working groups were assigned the mission of proposing strategies for economic renewal and job creation within the six months leading up to the Summit, one of which was on social economy. The plan that the social economy working group came up with (with the catchy title Osons la Solidarité –translating into something like Let’s Dare Solidarity in English) put non-profits and cooperative enterprises at the center of creating an economy that would not only generate employment but would also be more attuned to local social, economic and environmental needs. The plan called for a formal recognition of social economy, support for collective entrepreneurship especially in state development funding, legislative changes to facilitate creation of cooperatives and provision of training and funding.
Chantier de L’Économie Sociale was originally a temporary structure created with the specific objective of implementing this plan. Yet the networks and organisations it brought together decided to transform into an independent non-profit organisation after its mandate was over. Thus the Chantier as we know it was established in 1999 with the aim of promoting and developing the social economy. It is a network of social and solidarity economy organizations, union federations, social movements and local development organizations; it is governed collectively by its members.
Starting in 1960s the citizen movement has created grassroots organisations, such as citizen committees, neighbourhood assemblies, autonomous community centers, collective childcare centers, community-run clinics and housing coops. This tradition has created the infrastructure and the breeding ground for the contemporary cooperative economy.
Since its founding, Chantier has been remarkable in pushing, initiating and co-constructing policy for the social economy. Many note that the Chantier has been more than a mere consultant or a passive partner in policy formation. Rather, it has innovated policy and pushed the limits of policy processes: it has been the channel that demands and needs of social economy actors (such as the CDECs or Fonds de solidarité (see Part I) in addition to individual enterprises) found voice and translated into concrete policy proposals to be pushed in policy spaces. In other words, the Chantier became a vehicle through which meso- and macro-level interventions could be articulated and made, which would in turn expand the space of maneuver for social economy enterprises.
An often-cited example of such institutional innovation is the legal recognition of and infrastructure developed for the solidarity cooperative form in Québec. Non-existent prior to 1997 and quickly became popular thereafter, this multi-stakeholder cooperative form allows a broader base of participation in decision-making through its three kinds of membership. Among those, worker and consumer members probably ring more familiar than the third one, variously called supporting, solidarity or community members.
This third category is defined as any party with “an economic, social or cultural interest in the pursuit of the objects of the cooperative” according to Québec Law. Student-led cooperative café The Hive at Concordia University, for instance, is solidarity cooperative. Its board of directors has 7 user members, 4 worker members and 3 supporting members; the latter includes seats reserved for Concordia University faculty and suppliers of the Café.
While the Chantier’s mandate covers social economy more broadly –including but not limited to cooperative enterprises— it promotes collective ownership through providing resources and tools in finance, research, and business development. Two initiatives launched by the Chantier are especially notable in terms of financing cooperative and collective enterprises: In 1997, Chantier has launched the first non-profit venture capital fund in Québec dedicated exclusively to social economy enterprises, the Social Investment Network of Québec (Réseau d’investissement social du Québec-RISQ). RISQ is an investment fund created by private sector contributions and provides loans and assistance to social economy entreprises.
In addition, the Fiducie du Chantier de l’économie sociale was launched in 2007: a $53.8 million fund directed at collective enterprises. The initial funding for the Fiducie was secured from the federal government; today it includes investments from the union solidarity funds, Fonds de solidarité and FondAction, as well as contributions from the provincial government. The Chantier functions also as an observatory for social economy: it collects and provides data on the social economy, most importantly to identify strengths, weakness, potentials and needs.
A grassroots movement
What is invisible in this picture, however, is the social infrastructure produced by decades of citizen mobilization in Québec. Starting in the 1960s and mostly rooted in Montréal, the citizen movement (Mouvement Populaire) has created a number of grassroots organisations, such as citizen committees, neighborhood assemblies, autonomous community centers, collective childcare centers, community-run clinics and housing coops.
This tradition has effectively created the infrastructure and the breeding ground for the contemporary cooperative economy in Québec—in addition to being a strong force in pushing for social economy policies. A lot of the institutions and policies that supported cooperative development built on this infrastructure and formalized and/or strengthened the existing grassroots practices/initiatives. This is especially the case with social service initiatives like health and childcare. As Aaron Vansintjan and Donald Cuccioletta write in their piece:
“Citizens’ movements initiatives of the 1970s have been institutionalized and form a large part of the social service landscape in Quebec. Community health clinics became the model for province-wide local community clinics; community legal clinics were the basis for province-wide legal aid, and parent-controlled non-profit daycare is the foundation for universal daycare in Québec.”
A cooperative heaven?
A point often raised in relation to Québec’s larger social and solidarity economy is its close relation with the provincial state and its reliance on provincial support. This is indeed a fair point: the resilience of a cooperative economy enmeshed with financial and logistical support provided by the state should be questioned. Yet this questioning should not perpetuate a form of cynicism that portrays any kind of contemporary economic alternative to capitalism as doomed to fail.
What I have in mind here is not a lucid debate on challenges that such alternatives face, but rather the premature enunciations of their failure: those that proclaim, for instance, that cooperatives functioning within a capitalist market are going to be wiped out sooner or later inevitably, since they cannot compete with their capitalist counterparts, either because they are not efficient or because they do not prioritize short-term profits at the expense of social and ecological concerns. It follows from this reasoning that cooperatives (within capitalism) cannot survive without external financial support and this points to the inherent weakness of any economic alternative operating within a capitalist system—and that it is futile to play around with such alternatives and the real struggle should be to overthrow the “system” as such.
A thornier question pertains to how much of public support can be sustained with changing governments and a volatile political climate. While the Chantier has not been affected with changes in provincial governments, provincial funding for CDECs have been slashed in recent years. The broader question this puts forth then is how to build a politics of cooperativism that will keep its institutions resilient.
Many have produced insightful critiques of such a perspective. What I want to highlight here is the need to problematize the presumed success of cooperatives (vis-à-vis capitalist enterprises) by financial sustainability. Leaving aside the fact that the profitability (and thus the financial sustainability) of capitalist enterprises depend on how successfully they can shift the social and ecological costs of their operations (“externalising” their costs, in mainstream economics parlance), their survival is also often guaranteed by support they get from the state. The words of Nancy Neamtan, the first director of the Chantier, hits the nail in the head on this:
“There’s a wider ideological acceptance that the government plays a direct role in the economy. Even though in the solidarity economy we have to deal with the assumption that our [social solidarity economy] enterprises somehow ‘live off’ of government money, it’s pretty easy to shoot that down. Our strategy has been to say that we just want a level playing field. (The government) is giving all these tax breaks and refundable tax credits to these for-profit companies. Well, we want the equivalent for the cooperatives and non-profits.”
To shift deep-seated perceptions about the success and resilience of cooperatives vis-à-vis capitalist enterprises this way is a big gain –and it should not be underrated. But perhaps a thornier question pertains to how much of this outside support can be sustained with changing governments and a volatile political climate. While the Chantier has not been affected in any fundamental way with changes in provincial governments, provincial funding for CDECs have been slashed in recent years. The broader question this puts forth then is how to build a politics of cooperativism that will keep its institutions resilient.
Against the mainstream rhetoric
A deeper food for thought that QC’s cooperative economy presents, in my opinion, is different. Almost echoing the motivation behind PQ support for cooperatives in the 1980s, cooperative enterprises are often simply seen as a different way of “doing business”—at times by their members and more often by the broader public.
On the one hand, the existing support network for cooperative development makes adopting the legal form of a cooperative a viable (even profitable) choice for “entrepreneurs”. In that sense a cooperative is merely a legal name, much like a limited liability or a joint-stock company, with little commitment to cooperative values such as democracy, transparency, worker management or solidarity of social struggles at large.
On the other hand, the (mainstream) rhetoric around the social economy–including the cooperatives— tends to emphasise its role as filling a void left by the public and the private sector; i.e. that some activities are better taken over by social economy actors since they are better positioned to perform them. This is, for instance, overwhelmingly the narrative for the case of care work.
To the extent this rhetoric takes for granted that certain fields of the economic landscape should be organised via private investment and others by the state, it positions cooperatives as a third way solution between the two –rather than a pillar of anti-capitalist struggle. This, of course, does not define the motivations and the politics of QC’s cooperative economy in its entirety, but there are reasons to be sceptical.