Co-ops a better fit within Industry Canada: officials

Leaders pleased | Feds move portfolio away from Agriculture Canada

The federal government has decided to move responsibility for the co-operative sector from Agriculture Canada to Industry Canada.

It also promises to make the federal bureaucracy more co-op friendly.

Last week’s announcement was a response to the report of a special House of Commons committee on co-operatives and to regular complaints from co-op leaders that the sector is misplaced in an increasingly indifferent agriculture bureaucracy.

The Canadian Co-operative Association was thrilled.

“This is very good news,” CCA government relations manager Shawn Murphy said. “The sector has become so diverse that we are no longer a good fit under Agriculture Canada and frankly, agriculture had lost interest in the file.”

Industry minister Christian Paradis represents a rural Quebec riding with a strong co-operative presence.

Alberta MP Blake Richards, chair of the special committee on co-ops that was created last year during the international year of co-operatives, said the government is recognizing the economic impact of co-ops.

“It is a recognition of the importance of the sector,” he said.

“The thing we heard most from members of co-ops is that there really needed to be a proper place for them in government and we think Industry Canada is that place.”

He said Agriculture Canada was historically the home of co-op policy because most co-operatives were in the agricultural sector.

“Now, you see co-operatives throughout the economy in funerals, housing and even sports teams. This is an important change.”

The government response, which was tabled in Parliament Jan. 28, also pledged to educate public servants and the general public about the diversity and benefits of co-ops.

As well, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. will be instructed to provide “reasonable mortgage and refinancing services” to co-op social housing projects.

The new co-op policy did not address one of the key sector requests — creation of a federal tax credit for capital investments in co-operatives modelled on a successful Quebec program.

Murphy said it will continue to be a sector request, but also said it was unrealistic to expect that the government would deliver on the full menu of policy goals.

“I see this as kind of a courtship at the moment,” he said.

“We have been invited into the house. We want to create a permanent relationship.”

The most significant part of the policy announcement was the switch to Industry Canada, although exactly where policy will reside and whether a secretariat will be created within the department remains to be seen.

The co-operative sector has felt like an orphan in the Agriculture Canada bureaucracy for some time.

As an example, the last federal budget eliminated the $4 million fund for the Cooperative Development Initiative, which was created in 2003 to provide support for start-up co-ops. It also sharply reduced funding and staffing for the Agriculture Canada Rural and Co-operatives secretariat.

When co-op leaders criticized the decision, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz was dismissive.

“When I think of the co-operatives, they tell me they have a net worth of $385 billion in Canada,” he said last year.

“I’m not sure why they ask for $4 million from taxpayers to write books about the history of their co-ops, and that’s predominantly the applications we are getting. I think this could be done at a whole different level than taxpayer money.”

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