‘It’s only our imaginations that are small’
TELEGRAPH JOURNAL A-3, DAILY GLEANER, TIMES & TRANSCRIPT
New Brunswick‘s economy will get a boost, especially in rural areas, thanks to a new law that passed in the legislature, supporters say.
More than 10 years in the making, the new Co-operative Associations Act is meant to modernize the province‘s co-ops, independent organizations that are formed to meet common economic, social, and cultural needs and democratically controlled by their members.
The best known co-ops in New Brunswick include the Uni credit unions and Atlantic Co-op grocery stores, two organizations that have struggled in recent years.
Supporters like Wendy Keats, the executive director of the Co-operative Enterprise Council of New Brunswick, worked behind the scenes for years to make the changes happen. She said the province now has the most progressive co-op law in the country.
“The law hadn’t been updated since the time of Commodore 64s and party lines on telephones,” she said from Salisbury, near Moncton. “This new model will be much more palatable to millennials.”
The new rules remove the restriction that voting among members has to be done in person. Co-op members are now allowed to hold meetings online and vote electronically, making business far more convenient.
The new law also sets up different kinds of membership to attract investors, giving them a vote, even if they don’t want to get involved in the work otherwise. On top of this, boards have been granted more independence from the provincial regulator, the Financial and Consumer Services Commission.
Keats says it should make belonging to a co-op more attractive to younger generations, particularly in rural communities where there can be large gaps in services.
“They like the idea of keeping money locally, using ethical business practices where concern for communities and people and the planet are paramount. Co-ops always aim to make a profit and to be sustainable, but not at the sake of behaving in ways that are not beneficial to the community and its members.”
Keats said her organization and its francophone counterpart promoted the changes, while the commission and government worked out the finer details of redrafting the law. The bill passed through the hands of three successive governments – Progressive Conservative, Liberal and then Tory again – before reaching royal assent last Friday.
Part of the pitch was a study by the council showing that New Brunswick co-ops generate well over $1 billion in annual revenues and directly employ more than 7,500 people. It claims that job creation in the co-op sector is five times the average and the lifespan of the average co-op is twice that of a private company’s.
United Church minister Eric Tusz-King is one of New Brunswick‘s biggest co-op boosters.
Tusz-King was drawn to the idea of a business that could do good for the community and environment, while making money at the same time. So in 2006, he became one of the founding members of EnerGreen Builders Co-operative in Sackville. The workers co-op of nine member-owners offer energy-efficient new home construction and renovations of older homes.
Before relinquishing his role as the co-op’s office administrator in 2016,Tusz-King helped several families build environmentally friendly homes.
“I got into it through my work in the community and trying to promote social values and environmental values along with good, sound economic values,” he said. “The co-operative model is the best we’ve got. It’s not perfect and it’s still evolving, but it’s an excellent model for the promotion of sustainability. We can’t achieve environmental and social goals without having an economic model that supports them.”
Now semi-retired and working part-time as a consultant with Aster Group Environmental Services Co-operative, Tusz-King said there’s no reason to believe New Brunswick co-ops can’t do far more.
About 200 co-ops already dot the province and include retail, farming, fishing, banking, housing and workers organizations. But he pointed out that some co-ops, such as the Co-operators Insurance in Canada, are huge, as are industrial co-ops in places like Spain, which can have hundreds, if not thousands, of members.
The key, he said, was for government to help promote them. “Co-operatives don’t need to be small. It’s only our imaginations that are small.”