Learning and Listening Will Help Canada’s Worker Co-op Sector Build Relationships With Indigenous Communities

By Kenzie Love

As in many other BIPOC communities, Indigenous people in Canada have a long history of co-operativism. As Mark Intertas and James Thunder note in their paper Indigenizing the Co-operative Model: “While the co-operative is a relatively new construct in the context of European history, Indigenous peoples exhibited the characteristics and principles of co-operatives long before colonization and up to the present day. Relationship building, democratic organization, the Seven Teachings, the importance of education, and concerns for the community, were examples of the values that resonate in both Indigenous communities and the co-operative model.”

This argument is echoed in a 2016 report by the International Labour Organization, which observed: “The co-operative model offers a wealth of possibilities to address the issues faced by indigenous peoples in the world of work. It can play an important role in securing livelihoods, creating jobs, enhancing protection and ensuring sustainability through a framework that is participatory and empowering. The close alignment between the guiding principles of cooperatives and the spirit underlying the rights of indigenous peoples further builds a case for indigenous cooperatives as a tool for combating poverty and exclusion.”

Despite this alignment, Canada has had comparatively few formal Indigenous co-ops in recent years, worker co-ops among them. But there is growing momentum within the movement to change this. 

Co-operative development within Indigenous communities faces some of the same challenges that exist within the sector as a whole, including lack of awareness. As Co-operatives First’s Kyle White notes, “The University of Saskatchewan’s Co-operative Innovation Project clearly outlines intermittent awareness and understanding of the model within rural and Indigenous populations.” As White further notes, moreover, “For Indigenous community leaders aware of the model, the reputation of co-ops is not always overly positive. In fact, a history of sporadic Indigenous engagement from the co-op sector remains a clear part of the oral and economic memories and realities of these communities.”

Organizations such as CWCF and Co-operatives First, however, are working to deepen ties with Indigenous communities. CWCF’s land acknowledgement “honours the co-operative traditions that defined all the economies of northern North America before being disrupted by European merchant trade and subsequent state-administered, colonial dominance,” noting these traditions were “fully based on values that are currently promoted by the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA): self-help, self-responsibility, [consensus] democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.”

Recognizing that land acknowledgements are not enough, CWCF’s action plan seeks to build ‘Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’ in the worker co-op movement, including with Indigenous communities.

Putting this action plan into place when it comes to Indigenous communities involves recognizing that worker co-ops indeed have as much to learn from and about Indigenous communities as they have to offer them, and that this work is only just beginning. As Indigenous scholar Charlotte Ross observes, for such learning to be effective, it must take place within a context of relationships and listening, and it must look to the past rather than only focusing on the desired future.

“When we think about where we’ve come from, [and] before we’re able to start building a new bridge [we should ask] where are we? Where do we want to go? Where’s our path leading us?” Ross says. “I think it’s important to know where we came from.”