It wasn't so long ago that belonging to a co-operative was so much a part of daily life in rural Manitoba, no one thought much about what it meant.
Rural kids learned their co-op "number" at about the same age they learned their home phone number. And when they moved to the big cities to attend university, more than a few were confronted with puzzled looks from urban grocery store clerks when they forgot where they were and it rolled off their tongues as they reached the till.
Co-ops were -- and in many communities still are -- simply where people bought their groceries, hardware, fuel and farm supplies. You can even buy co-op insurance. It's still where many put their money. In fact, one-third of all Canadians belong to a credit union, giving Canada the world's highest per-capita percentage of credit union membership.
Co-ops were the masters of the customer loyalty cards long before Air Miles and all those other points cards starting polluting our wallets. That co-op membership number entitles the holder to special privileges and patronage dividends, some of which were repaid annually and some of which were retained by the co-op for operating revenue until the member resigned or retired.
But people were loyal to their co-ops for reasons that reached far deeper into the Prairie psyche than an annual patronage refund.
Just last week, a group of hardy historians braved a wet, snowy October morning to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk Settlers' arrival in 1812 with a symbolic planting of wheat. Those settlers, along with the waves of new immigrants that followed them in the latter part of the 19th century, quickly learned co-operation was necessary for survival in this harsh yet fragile environment.
Truth be told, the people who came here to start a new life were either tricked by glowing advertisements, which in today's terms would be considered downright fraudulent, or forced by threat of starvation into coming. They had no idea they were coming to homestead amidst undrained swamps, raging wildfires and few trees with which to build the homes required to fulfil their Homestead Act obligations.
But when they got to their "free" land, it was either survive -- or not. If they were going to get the work done, get their children schooled and have a place of worship, it would have to be a collective community effort. If they were going to get a fair shake from the railroads and the private grain traders, they would have to unite for the fight.
It was only natural for folks back then to expand that culture into capitalistic ventures, such as the Prairie grain co-ops, which at their peak in the 1980s handled nearly two-thirds of the grain produced in the West. In addition to giving them market power, the financial interest and fiduciary duties of owning your own grain company made farmers in this part of the world an exceptionally well-informed bunch.
The pools epitomized both the power of grassroots capitalism and the pitfalls. Whether it was through changing times, bad luck or misguided management, ultimately these businesses reached a point at which they could no longer meet member expectations. Confronted with an aging demographic, which meant returning a wave of capital to retiring farmers, these co-ops panicked, borrowed too much money, cannibalized each other and were then absorbed into the private trade.
Those failures aside, co-ops are still an important part of business life in Canada. This country has more than 9,000 co-operatives and credit unions serving 18 million members -- more than half the population.
This model for community development is also playing an increasingly important role in international development, so much so that the United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization is focusing this year's Oct. 16 World Food Day theme on co-operatives as key to feeding the world.
With many of the world's undernourished also engaged in small-holder agriculture, co-ops are a tool that can convert a spike in food prices, such as we're seeing this year, from a hunger threat into an opportunity. Strong producer organizations and co-operatives are better able than individuals to get products to market, obtain credit and access the inputs members need to farm. It is also often their first experience with participatory democracy.
Whether it's in a highly developed country like Canada or in an emerging economy somewhere else, belonging to a co-op is about much more than the money. It's the spirit.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com