Nourishing a Local Economy

The Co-op Connection
by Chris Bauman

The rise of the co-operative movement was a profound response to the injustices which arose out of the factory system in the U.K. during the Industrial Revolution.

Inventions such as steam engines and harvesters resulted in millionaires being created and millions being impoverished. With the concentration of wealth and centralization of work, the quality of life for farmers and craftsmen and other autonomous rural workers dramatically plummeted. Making decisions about when one worked, what materials were used, how products were made, priced and sold were all swept away into the hands of the powerful few.

Multitudes were forced to the cities, which were ill-equipped to deal with the demands of such an influx. Once they got there, no health care system, pensions or employment insurance replaced the community web of care that had been destroyed. There were no laws about child labour, minimum wage or safe working conditions. It took tragedy, a sense of justice and compassion to galvanize people and lawmakers to revolutionize the social structure of the time.  

In Rochdale in 1844, England, a group of 30 weavers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and other skilled tradesmen formed the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. The pioneers were tired of paying high prices for poor quality food at shops run by factory owners. They pooled their savings to buy food supplies and sold these staples back to society members at fair market prices. As they created a surplus, they invested that back into the co-op, buying more goods and then issuing rebates to members. Within 10 years there were 1,000 co-ops in England alone.

This spectacular success built on previous attempts. They created the Rochdale Principles which became the basis of the co-op movement worldwide.

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Members’ Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training and Information
  6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
  7. Concern for Community

In Canada, farming communities spearheaded co-operative efforts. Particularly with the building of the railway across Canada, the vast distances made it imperative that people work together. By 1900, there were over 1,200 creameries alone scattered across Canada. The foundation of credit unions was also laid, imperative for financing of new business ventures when banks would not consider them. Prairie grain farmers took co-operative action to a whole other scale of operation. It is no co-incidence that Tommy Douglas, one of the greatest Canadians of all time, was raised in Winnipeg and spent a good part of his life in Saskatchewan, in the heart of the Prairie co-operative tradition and was instrumental in the establishment of health care, pensions and employment insurance and more.

Today in Lumby, we have the Monashee Community Co-op, dedicated to providing the community with locally made wholesome foods and crafts. It is directed by a board and informed by its membership. It promotes food security. MCC is staffed by caring and dedicated volunteers. It supports local vendors who strive for environmentally responsible and ethical agriculture; it nourishes all who enter by providing healthy, organic, local food. The Monashee Community Co-op also nourishes by generating community and caring and by educating and learning from each other.  The members are proud to be following the path of the Rochdale pioneers.