“It felt like growing up.”
That might seem like a strange thing to say, but that’s how former MLA Corky Evans felt as he walked into Nelson’s brand new Kootenay Co-op on Baker Street. It was a few weeks before opening and he’d been invited to tour the building along with other suppliers.
“It makes me feel like a grandfather. I didn’t even imagine the co-op would survive until 2016. I don’t think any of us could have predicted this back 25, 35 years ago. This started with people who were just trying to solve a problem — it was hard to find food you could afford so you had to get it in bulk, and it was hard to find food that was healthy,” Evans told the Star.
“The store opening in Nelson is going to make people realize it’s a serious, viable form of business, and when people work together the sky’s the limit on what they can achieve.”
Evans has never actually been on the board of Kootenay Co-op, and his involvement over the years has been “peripheral”— right now he sells them flowers — but he’s long been a passionate advocate for co-ops and he sits on the Upper Columbia Cooperative Council. And along with council coordinator Zoe Creighton, he’s applauding the work that went into Nelson’s new grocery store.
“It shows newness and success,” said Creighton.
“It’s not as big as a huge box store, and maybe it doesn’t have as much retail space as a big store in the city, but having the co-op model on proud display right downtown in a growing city is pretty impressive.”
She hopes this will compel people to learn more about the existing co-ops in the Kootenays, and consider the model as a strong alternative to corporatism.
“We’ve got 40, 45 co-ops in East and West Kootenay, but a lot of us do work that doesn’t have a big splashy presence. We’re just using the co-op model to effectively carry out the work we do, because it works.”
And Evans believes more people are throwing their weight behind the movement.
“Since 2008, when people lost their confidence in banks and certainly in the stock exchange, there’s been all over Canada a kind of awareness of the need to find a form of business that is less speculative and more stable. And the co-op movement is experiencing growth as a result.”
The co-ops that belong to their council include credit unions, car shares and all manner of businesses, including a bakery. But it’s Kootenay Co-op that most people think of as “The Co-op” according to Creighton.
Another surprising fact: Nelson’s Home Hardware is a co-op.
“This raises awareness about what a co-op is and gets people asking questions. There’s this whole concept of social enterprise that’s been really glitzy in the past five years. People are saying there’s not going to be any entrepreneurial undertaking that’s successful in the next ten years that doesn’t have some sort of principle or values base because consumers want to put their money somewhere where their conscience is.”
She said co-ops “are the original social enterprise.”
“We’ve been around since the 1840s, where a bunch of old guys who were weavers banded together out of necessity. It wasn’t about jumping on a social responsibility band wagon, they were broke and they needed each other in order to be able to purchase volumes at a low price so they could feed their families.”
And now that she she sees social enterprises “exploding all over North America and Europe”, she takes it as testament to the longevity and relevance of the co-op model.
“Young people are all into starting value-based businesses these days, and co-ops, that’s what they are at their cores. They have social and environmental aims.”
And this community is rife with people willing to contribute, Evans said. Along with his wife Helen he loaned money to the co-op to help the project get off the ground, and he has many friends who did the same, while some purchased condos in the Nelson Commons to help the process along. Their lenders, such as Van City, are also co-operatives.
“Now it’s this wonderful, attractive new asset to Nelson and the whole community,” he said.
Kootenay Coop employee Cathy-Ann Glockner has seen the store move twice since she first started working there, and she’s embraced different roles in the organization over the years. For her, being in the new store is the fulfilment of a dream, one she shared with the rest of the collective.
“This is an integral part of our community. When we moved here, part of the excitement was being near the co-op, as small as it was,” said Glockner.
“It’s about being a part of this community in a deeper way and putting your time and efforts into something that’s bigger.”
So this isn’t just another job for her.
“I worked in the insurance industry for years and was making considerably more money and having much more luxuries in many ways, and I left that to come back and be a cashier knowing this was the happiest job I’ve ever had. I got my priorities straight.”
She said the move brought her team together.
“People were so excited. Everyone was picking up extra shifts, saying ‘how can I help?’ and jumping in wherever they were needed. It was really special to see.”
And that’s what makes co-ops so unique according to Creighton.
“We’re planting the seeds,” she said. “And apparently they’re growing.”
How are co-operatives different from businesses?
From the Upper Columbia Co-op Council website
Cooperatives and credit unions differ from other businesses in three key ways:
A Different Purpose:
The primary purpose of co-operatives and credit unions is to meet the common needs of their members, whereas the primary purpose of most investor-owned businesses is to maximize profit for shareholders. The primary purpose of a worker’s cooperative is to provide stable and meaningful work for its members.
A Different Control Structure:
Co-operatives and credit unions use the one member/one vote system, not the one vote per share system used by most businesses. This helps the co-operative or credit union serve the common need rather then the individual need and is a way to ensure that people, not capital control the organization.
A Different Allocation of Profit:
Co-operatives and credit unions share profits among their member-owners on the basis of how much they contribute to the co-op, not on how many shares they hold. Co-operatives and credit unions invest their profits in improving service to their members and improving the well-being of their communities. They also commit to reinvesting a portion of our revenue back into the communities in which we live and work in order to support non-profit, advocacy, and social entrepreneurship.
In the Kootenay and Boundary regions of Southeastern British Columbia, where the Co-op Council resides, there are over 40 incorporated co-operatives, including several credit unions, food co-ops, radio stations, artisans’ co-ops, land co-ops, housing co-ops, social service co-ops and carshare services that all do business co-operatively.