1900-1990: The co-operative movement in Quebec - Larry Gambone

Larry Gambone's rather over-enthusiastic analysis and history of the huge co-operative movement in Quebec, Canada, which embraced the majority of the population

Co-operatives are more important in Quebec than probably any other place in the world. Consider that out of a population of about six and a half million, 5,960,000 are members of a co-operative. No other voluntary institution in society has that level of participation.

The jewel in the co-op crown is the federation Caisse Populaire Desjardins. This credit union is the financial backer of the entire movement and co-operation really didn't become successful before the Caisse came on the scene. One hundred years ago, no bank would lend money to a worker or a peasant. Usury from loan sharks was the only source of credit and people found themselves enslaved in an endless cycle of debt. It is impossible to judge the positive impact that this institution has had upon the lives of ordinary Quebecers. Let's just say a lot fewer workers would own their own homes without a loan from their local caisse. Nor would many other forms of co-operative exist without these financial resources.

Begun in 1900 with a handful of poor villagers and $20.00 in deposits, it now has 5.4 million members in 1,500 local caisses united in fourteen regional federations. Total assets stand at $77 billion, making it larger than any of the banks operating in Quebec. The Caisse Populaire, with 40,000 employees, is also the largest 'private' employer and is the sole financial institution in 675 communities. As such, its role in the preservation of village and rural life is crucial.

The co-operative sector of next greatest importance economically is agriculture. Farm co-operatives were first formed in the nineteenth centllry but did not become a permanent fixture upon the rural scene until after World War One. Farmers found themselves strangled by the middlemen, both were buying supplies and equipment and then selIing their produce. The only way to overcome this sort of parasitism was to band together in supply and marketing co-operatives. Today, more than 60% of all producers (38,000 farmers) belong to these organisations and they do $4 billion in business each year.

Some co-ops provide goods and services for farms such as petroleum, machinery and seed. Other co-ops own dairies and processing plants, many of which are the largest in their field. These include cheese, yoghurt, fruit juice and rnilk processing. The agricultural co-operatives are, according to Le Devoir's special supplement on co-operatives, "the principle source of prosperity in their regions".

Co-ops play an important part in the life of native and Inuit communities. Prior to their development, native people were dependent upon the Hudson Bay Company for goods and marketing of their furs and other products. This meant a net outflow of wealth which they could not afford. Starting in 1958, co-ops were set up to overcome this problem and now there exist sixteen native-owned and controlled co-operative associations doing $31 million in business annually. More than 5,000 families are members of these organisations.

The student Co-op Movement was founded in 1983 as a means to provide cheaper books, stationary and computers for college students. This group also includes bookstores, services and student cafeterias. Each year these co-ops have a turnover of $50 million and membership now stands at 540,000 students. Largely run by volunteers, this movement has the added advantage of being a kind of school for co-operators.

Worker co-ops have been in Quebec since 1946, yet the movement really only got off the ground in the 1980s. At present there are 170 worker co-ops with 7,260 members doing $255 million in business. Most of these are concentrated in the forest industry which includes saw mills, pulpwood cutting, tree planting and an enormous nursery for spruce and pine trees. Self-managed co-ops also exist in printing, manufacturing, taxi driving and greenhousing. There is an impact beyond the membership for "worker co-ops have permitted villages to survive", according to Le Devoir.

Housing co-operatives began to be constructed in the 1970s as a means to provide inexpensive, yet self-governed, apartments as an alternative to state-owned social housing. The social breakdown and anomie found in housing projects does not occur here. People take pride in their co-ops and, when they function properly, become schools for grassroots democracy. There now exist in Quebec 1100 housing with about 60,000 residents. This movement also puts about $112 million into the economy every year.

Last but not least are the insurance co-ops, of which there are two. These organisations are the direct descendants of the mutual aid societies created by farmers and artisans more than 150 years ago. Today, they have 300,000 members and are worth over one billion dollars and still maintain the one member, one vote criteria.

Taken together, the 3,300 co-operatives did $11.6 billion of business in 1990, or roughly 8% of the Quebec GNP. This may not seem like much, but some other figures will put the co-operative share in a different perspective. Eight percent is more than three times the percentage of military expenditure in Canada. It is also more than three times the size of the Canadian income generated from investment and trade with the Third World. 8% is also greater than the proportion of the American GNP spent upon the military at the height of the Cold War. (And we all know how important the 'military-industrial complex' once was to the economy in the USA). Hence co-operation as an economic factor in Quebec society cannot be lightly brushed aside.

All very well, you might say, but what has this to do with anarchism? Certainly few, if any, co-ops would consider themselves anarchist. However, the principles by which they function are libertarian ones. And even if they have 'become conservative' or seem at first no different from any other institution, these principles are the reason behind their continuing success and popularity. Due to competition from the co-operatives, capitalist enterprises have been forced to give a similar level of prices and services. Hence, any strictly economic advantage of co-operation is no longer quite as important as it once was. Yet these institutions continue to grow in membership. The reason for this must lie in the way that co-operatives are organised, the methods that capitalism cannot adopt without losing much of its capitalist nature.

Quebec co-op principles could have come straight from Proudhon . One principle is mutual aid (the very basis and raison d'etre of the movement). Also of great importance is the notion of one member-one vote which is in opposition to the capitalist concept of power based on the number of shares held. Then there are the concepts of local control, federalism and self-management (the latter in the case of worker co-ops). The different co-ops and caisses are proud of their autonomy and wish to keep it. While certain things might be better accomplished in a centralised fashion, unity is brought about through the federalist principle and not a top-down hierarchy as in the case of a typical business corporation.

Solidarity and the preservation of community are also important aspects of the Quebec movement, for in many places co-ops were set up precisely to maintain the rural way of life against the onslaught of urbanism and capitalism. Nor is this solidarity restricted to Quebec. Desjardins, as one example, has helped establish effective credit unions in other provinces such as Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba. They have also aided the development of credit unions in Mexico , Russia and West Africa.

There is also the fact that co-ops are so common, so taken for granted, and indeed so mainstream, that makes them such good propaganda for anarchism. If mutual aid was confined to half a dozen anarchists working on some grossly undercapitalised enterprise in a dingy room, few people will ever become interested in anarchism. And if these 'mainstream' co-operatives, operating on good libertarian principles function as well as they do, why can't these ideas be extended to society as a whole? If an important sector of the economy is co-operative, why not all the economy? If mutual aid is so successful, why can't mutualism replace statism? If co-ops preserve community, isn't this an answer to social breakdown and the destructiveness of the Trans National Corporation? If local control and federalism work well for credit unions why not with local government? If workers co-ops function efficiently under self-management, surely other industries could be run in this manner. These are the sort of questions that can be asked in response to a successful co-operative movement, such as the one in Quebec.

Larry Gambone