For many years now in my role as a journalist/public speaker, I’ve had the opportunity to see our co-op through the eyes of others — particularly those who don’t have a community-owned, locally-focused grocery store.
In June, I had the chance to share the story of our co-op with the co-op sector in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This was the first time I was specifically invited to events hosted by the broader co-op sector rather than organizations focused on local food initiatives. As such, I was able to see our co-op through rather different perspectives than I had before.
The trip was initiated by the 67-year-old Nova Scotia Co-operative Council (NSCC). Every year, NSCC hosts an annual gala and keynote speaker for their members. NSCC is the ‘voice of the co-op movement in Nova Scotia.’
Nova Scotia’s Co-operative History
Canada’s co-operative movement owes some of its successes to the Antigonish Movement that emerged out of St. Francis Xavier University in 1928. By 1938, the movement had led to the formation in Nova Scotia of 142 credit unions, 39 co-operative stores, 17 co-operative lobster factories, 11 co-operative fish plants, and 11 other co-ops. The masterminds behind the movement went on to travel across Canada, sharing their successes and particularly inspiring credit union formation across the country. Credit Unions would go on to play critical roles in supporting local economic and co-operative development. This made my visit all the more special and is why I also incorporated into my presentations the story of our region’s co-op sector of over 20 co-ops. At the conclusion of my talk, I was approached by an employee and director of the Bergengren Credit Union in Antigonish who remarked that the emergence of co-ops in our region reminded them of the energy and enthusiasm of the Antigonish Movement. Wow! What a wonderful reflection of our work!
My visit to the East Coast to speak about our co-op came at an interesting time for the region’s retail food co-op sector. The Atlantic region has had one of the highest concentrations of retail grocery co-ops in North America thanks to the presence of Co-op Atlantic – a co-op of co-ops providing wholesale and marketing services to individual food co-ops, with annual sales of $267M. While the shelves of Co-op Atlantic stores resemble(d) those of conventional stores, most of the stores that were part of Co-op Atlantic remained community-owned co-ops. In 2015, following many challenging years, Co-op Atlantic’s member stores voted to sell Co-op Atlantic’s food assets to Sobey’s (Canada’s second largest grocery chain). Since then, most of the community-owned stores have either closed or negotiated deals with Sobey’s to supply their stores with food.
As you can imagine, the timing of my presentation about a thriving independent co-op that focuses on organic and local foods was highly relevant. Sitting next to me at the gala was the former CEO of Co-op Atlantic, John Harvie (2002-2011). John first joined the co-op as a member in 1976. On the other side of me was Jeff Yuill, former board director of Co-op Atlantic and long-time member of the Colchester Co-op grocery store (Truro) that closed its doors in 2009 after 53 years. As I returned to my seat following my 45-minute presentation, both John and Jeff remarked to each other how helpful it would have been for Co-op Atlantic to have known about the Kootenay Co-op’s approach 15 years earlier. Jeff went on to say that throughout the presentation, he was getting ‘goosebumps’ from the way our co-op reminded him of the human energy and inspiration that led to the formation of Nova Scotia’s food co-ops many decades ago.
For me, these were but two experiences that reaffirmed our co-op’s direction of adapting to change, remaining relevant and fresh, and never losing sight of our history and foundations.
I return proud of our co-op’s achievements and tremendously enthusiastic about the ability of our co-op and our community to continue to inspire others as we evolve, adapt and shine!
Photo: Jon Steinman (left) with Dianne Kelderman and Fred Pierce of the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council