Cooperatives

Arctic aboriginal peoples relied upon spontaneous cooperation within families and bands for survival, whether it was in jointly fishing the mouth of a river or hunting seals on an ice pack. To many observers outside of the Arctic, this "natural" co-operative tendency suggested that Arctic peoples tended embrace formal co-operative enterprises in their economic and social development as if by design. The extent to which such observations were correct remains unclear, although the concept does make some rather glib assumptions about the relationship between custom and institutionalized behavior.

The formal co-operative movement began in the industrializing nations of Europe in the 19th century, but it was not until the 1950s that southern countries controlling the Arctic regions began seriously— although unevenly—to foster co-operatives in their northern territories and dependencies. It was part of a growing consciousness in many European and North American countries that the North was strategically important, that there were lingering questions of sovereignty despite centuries of incursions, that they contained vitally important resources, and that the southern governments had social and economic responsibilities to their northern citizens.

It was also a natural extension into the northern reaches of the development theories of the time. Elsewhere in the world, experts in economic development, within such organizations as the United Nations and the emerging international development community, were turning to co-operatives as formal, legally incorporated institutions as an effective tool of community enrichment and individual empowerment. Although there were some efforts by the Scandinavians to develop co-operatives among the Saami, and others by the Americans among the "Eskimos," the main efforts were made in Canada and Greenland.

In Canada, the government began discussing the possibility of co-op development as a way to mobilize the northern aboriginal art industry that had first become an export trade under the Hudson's Bay Company. That possibility was promoted by James Houston, one of the first Canadian artists to visit the region, the established southern Canadian co-operative movement, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (which helped in the early years to organize the trade) and officials within the then Department of Northern Affairs. Houston made his greatest contribution in Dorset where, along with his wife Alma and others, he helped nurture a strong traditional commitment to artistic endeavor into a viable art community.

The first legally incorporated co-operatives were established at George River and Port Burwell in 1959, originally to develop the fishing industry and to encourage the production of Inuit art for sale in the south and overseas. During the next two decades, government officials established over 70 co-operatives in the Canadian North, one in almost every community of significance. The driving force behind this development was a group of committed officials within the

Department of Northern Affairs, notably Don Snowden, Aleks Sprudz, and Paul Godt, the latter two with considerable experience within the European cooperative movement. They focused first on the communities of the Ungava region and Baffin Island, but soon gave their attention to other regions as well. They worked through the Development Officers that the Department appointed to the region and also locally with Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, missionaries, and schoolteachers. In a sense then, co-ops were part of the southern expansion into the region that became a feature of Northern Canadian history from the 1950s onward.

The most celebrated part of the northern co-op business was the development of the art industry, and its most prominent proponents were Houston and Snowden. The industry, in fact, was largely controlled through the co-operatives, which undertook training of Inuit artists and craftspeople in southern art media, the on-site evaluation of the art, its marketing in the South, and its promotion within art circles Infait, in the 1960s, Inuit art became the most common forms of Canadian art presented to visiting royalty and other prominent dignitaries. It also became increasingly diverse, moving beyond the original ivory and stone carvings to include prints, embroidery, wall hangings, calendars, and parkas. It engaged the interest of women and men in nearly every community, becoming one of the few exports small enough to be shipped in quantity and attractive to enough to compete in the international art markets. The development of the art business was also particularly satisfying to both buyers and Inuit: it chronicled the past and the religious views of some of the most thoughtful Inuit; it was a comforting reminder of who they were as a people, a way to record their stories and experiences, and a reflection of the changes they were experiencing.

The co-operatives, however, quickly became far more than institutions for the development of the art industries: they became essential instruments for other kinds of economic development as well. In most northern communities the only retail outlets had been those provided by the Hudson's Bay Company. This monopoly had led to charges of price gouging and some resentments, meaning that northerners, including both aboriginal people and southern sojourners, welcomed the entry of the co-ops into the consumer goods retail trade. It was one way to monitor expenses and to assure fair prices.

Gradually, two networks of co-ops emerged, one in Nunavik (Nouveau Québec) the other in the northern reaches of what was then called the Northwest Territories. The stores were developed first among Inuit, largely because officials in Northern Affairs were far more supportive of co-operatives than their colleagues in Indian Affairs, some of whom had had difficult time trying to establish co-ops among southern Amerindians. In time, though, co-ops did start to emerge in essentially Dene, Cree, and Innu communities as well.

As the co-ops developed, they imitated the practice of co-operatives elsewhere and formed federations, La fédération des cooperatives du Nouveau Québec in 1974 and Arctic Co-operatives, created in 1984 by amalgamating the Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation, an educational and lobbying organization, and Canadian Arctic Producers, which marketed northern products in the south.

The federations performed a variety of functions, including the ongoing marketing of art, but more importantly the complicated purchasing of supplies and their delivery into the northern communities. They also provided extensive training for Inuit in how to operate businesses and conduct meetings. Many Inuit political and business leaders were trained first by the co-ops, who early developed training programs taking northern aboriginal leaders south to Québec City, Montréal, and Saskatoon.

The co-ops also played an important role in the development of northern and northern aboriginal consciousness. During the 1960s, they sponsored some of the first Arctic regional meetings of Inuit, bringing together representatives from both the Eastern and Western Arctic. During the 1970s and 1980s they provided one of the first successful pan-Arctic structures for Inuit, one of the few opportunities that existed for creating a regional Inuit consciousness.

The two federations, however, developed somewhat differently. In Nunavik, where the communities were relatively close together, a dynamic leader, Peter Murdoch emerged, and the model of the Québec cooperative movement, notably its powerful co-operative banking movement, Mouvement Desjardins, stressed a strong central organization. The result was a federation with strong central direction, one that characteristically assumed responsibility for many of the key business decisions for all the co-ops and provided considerable direction to local co-op boards and managers. In contrast, the co-ops in the rest of the Canadian Arctic, scattered across a large region and among quite diverse communities, reflected the cooperative traditions of the Anglophone co-operative movement in the South; it developed a weak federation at first, one that provided an immense challenge for its leaders, notably Andrew Goussaert and Bill Lyell, who emerged in the 1970s as the most important co-operative leaders in the region.

One consequence of this difference has been that the decentralized movement in the old Northwest Territories has placed great pressures on its managers, requiring the kind of diverse training in business practice that few aboriginal people possess—and once gained means that they can demand better salaries and fringe benefits in the public service or in private business. The result has been that it has always been simpler to bring managers from the South, usually on short-term assignments, to run the co-ops. In contrast, the more centralized system in Nunavik was less demanding of local managers, meaning that greater permanence of managers has been possible and the roles of Inuit in managing them has been more clear-cut and more secure.

The contributions of both federations, however, have been vitally important in explaining the successes of the northern co-operatives. Over the years they have been significant employers of Inuit, typically distributing that employment so that many families benefit, and accommodating the desires of people to live on the land for portions of the year. Moreover, Inuit (and gradually other aboriginal peoples) have overwhelmingly dominated the boards of the co-ops, so much so that there is doubt as to where co-ops as reflections of northern identity and aboriginal consciousness end and their roles as characteristically southern institutions transplanted into the North—like so many other institutions—begin. To some extent they are both.

There is no doubt, though, that they became reflections of community pride—their annual meetings are among the best attended of any co-ops in Canada— and have served as incubators for Inuit political and economic leaders. About half of the members of the Nunavut legislature have received a part of their training within the democratic process of the co-operatives.

The Arctic Co-operatives have also become known for their business innovation. The northern climate and distances, originally the limited transportation access through the summer ships, have meant that survival for any kind of business in the region has always been at question. The early co-ops experienced some very difficult times and nearly went bankrupt on several occasions. At first, they relied largely on government support to survive, but they have developed their own ways of overcoming obstacles. Within the group of coops associated with Arctic Co-operatives, have developed their own financial system to provide loans to local co-operatives and to assist them in developing businesses. It is one of the most remarkable self-regulating and self-financing systems within the Canadian co-operative movement.

The Arctic Co-operatives are notable for their entre-preneurship and their diverse business operations. In addition to their retail stores and art businesses, they typically operate a range of businesses such as hotels, guiding operations for southern tourists, postal services, sell local fish and animal products, skidoo repairs, and video rentals—anything that a community needs and that can be met in a businesslike manner.

As Inuit and Dene have taken more responsibility for their own development, the co-op model has not had the same public presence as the aboriginal organization, the land claims process or the development corporations, even though the co-ops helped provide the context within which they developed and despite their remarkable success as aboriginal-led institutions.

In Greenland, co-operatives were natural extensions of the strong and influential Danish co-operative movement, although the ties have not been as strong as the Arctic co-ops in Canada have with the southern movement of that country. They conformed to the conventional co-operative principles and served a range of purposes between the public and private sectors, but they were largely dependent upon state support. They provided some useful services—operating stores or cold storage facilities for processing fish and ani-mals—in communities struggling to remain viable when government support declined. Even more than in Arctic Canada, though, they have had difficulty in preserving their place—and making the case for a cooperative approach to economic and social development—amid the growing interest in the private business model and the growing social predilection for modern forms of individualism.

The history of cooperatives in the Arctic suggests the complexity of economic development in the region, invites further understanding of how "southern" policies can be best implemented, provides options for how northern communities can mobilize their resources, and raises issues about whether northern aboriginal peoples can adapt the structured co-operative form to best meet their economic and social needs. It raises the question of how far it is possible to utilize traditional notions of collaboration can be applied in a modern society .of whether those who have assumed there could be a natural correlation might have been right.

Ian McPherson

See also Hudson's Bay Company; Trade

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