Co-op beesCo-operative industry dates back to the very foundation of Saskatchewan’s culture as a province. The Saskatchewan Honey Co-operative was one of the earliest formal co-ops and, like many others, it was an organization that actively experimented and helped its members learn.
In Toronto for a weekend business trip with journalists from across the country, one of my co-workers asked me what seemed to be a strange question.
“You know what the Co-op is, right?” asked my co-worker, who lives in Toronto but is originally from Prince Albert.
Of course I know what the Co-op is—anyone who has lived in the prairies for any amount of time has stopped by the local Co-op to buy groceries, or filled their tank at the Co-op gas bar on the corner. The bright red signs with white sans-serif lettering are as familiar in Saskatchewan as any number of other brands.
With us in Toronto were representatives from BC, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. No one else knew what we were talking about when we said “the Co-op.”
The logo and the name of the Co-op are a visible part of the Prairie landscape. My co-worker and I connected over this image; we instinctively knew the Co-ops were an important and integral part of prairie life.
But our connection over co-operatives in Saskatchewan was about more than a recognizable logo and a few shared experiences. Historically, co-operatives like the now defunct Saskatchewan Wheat Pool had a tremendous impact on improving the livelihoods of Saskatchewan residents, says Glen Tully, chair of the board for Federated Co-operatives Limited. “The services in some of these communities would not be available without the role of a co-operative, and that sense of ownership in the co-operative in Saskatchewan—that’s the key. People sense that they have an ownership in this organization.”
Co-operatives in general are more numerous in the Prairie provinces than elsewhere. An Ipsos Reid poll reported that 61 per cent of Manitoba and Saskatchewan residents, and 44 per cent of Albertans, said they were members of a co-op, while only 10 per cent of Ontarians could say the same.
Mitch Diamantopoulos says the strength of co-ops in Saskatchewan comes from their long history in rural communities. He is an assistant professor and department head of the School of Journalism at the University of Regina, and is the founder of the Planet S and Prairie Dog magazines, which are a worker co-operative.
“There’s a strong basis of public values in Saskatchewan for co-operative solutions, for neighbours to work with neighbours and to take direct action, not to wait for the market to solve a problem but pull people together to work together at a community level.”
Tully echoes Diamantopoulos’s words, saying co-operatives are about “people helping people.”
“You can relate it back to the generosity of the residents of Saskatchewan,” said Tully. “It’s not about me in the co-op, it’s about how do we create a business that will help our community so everybody can benefit?”
Those benefits come in myriad forms, whether it’s supporting the local hockey team, or making a donation to the local curling bonspiel, or giving other charities in the community a space to sell hot dogs for a fundraiser.