In co-operative development circles in Canada, there is an assumption that co-operatives are a good “fit” in Canada’s Aboriginal communities, due to the Aboriginal cultural tradition of collective ownership. It is a common statement: “What I know of Aboriginal culture, co-op is such a natural fit for their cultural background which is all about sharing and empowerment and so I think it’s just a natural fit.”
If the co-operative model is indeed a good fit — that co-operatives best reflect collective cultural traditions — why are there not more co-op businesses owned and operated in Canada’s Aboriginal communities? In 1969, there were 145 co-operatives with about 8,000 members considered owned and operated by Canadian First Nations. Their volume of business was about $5.4 million in 1969 and assets owned sat at over $4 million. These businesses were found predominantly across western Canada: 136 of the 145 reported Aboriginal co-ops were in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Clearly, the prairies were a hotbed of co-operative activity in the Aboriginal community.
When Lou Hammond Ketilson and Ian MacPherson released their report on Aboriginal cooperatives in Canada in 2001, they reported “about 133” co-operatives as “predominantly” Aboriginal in membership. Fast forward to 2012, where the Canadian Co-operative Association reported just 123 co-ops in Aboriginal communities in Canada — shrinking to 85% of the 1969 total.That 2012 number included 18 co-ops that were “in development,” as well as an expanded definition of “Aboriginal” that included First Nations reserves, Métis communities, urban areas with significant Aboriginal population, and rural regions with significant Aboriginal population.
One positive difference in these numbers was that co-ops could be found from coast to coast to coast. As well, the co-operative model has long been embraced by Canada’s Inuit people. Indeed, the strength of Arctic Co-operatives Limited in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, along with other co-operatives throughout the provincial norths, particularly Quebec, shows the importance of community-led co-operatives across many northern communities.
Otherwise, the significant reduction in the number of Aboriginal co-ops in Canada between 1969 and 2012 should signal concern to the co-operative sector — particularly given the opposite demographic rise in the number of Aboriginal people in Canada during the same time period, and the future predicted demographic rise in western Canada’s Aboriginal population.
Other Co-operative Innovation Project Publications
1. Co-operative Development
2. Co-operative Development with Aboriginal Communities
3. Co-operative Development in Western Canada
4. Co-operative Development Building Strong Co-operatives
5. Model of a Robust Co-operative Development Environment