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Co-ops grow in non-traditional area

The co-operative sector remains robust and growing, says a co-op leader, despite the disappearance of some high-profile co-ops in the last several decades, including the three prairie wheat pools.

Kathy Bardswick, president of insurance giant The Co-operators, said the current United Nations-declared Year of the Co-operative is a chance to spread the word.

“There is no question that it is an evolving sector and it is true that some of our historic members, like the pools, are gone and that is always sad,” she said.

“But we also are growing in non-traditional areas, health care and renewable energy, for example, and the sector is robust. And of course, we still are strong in established sectors as well, like retail.”

Bardswick was one of the keynote speakers at a recent Canadian Co-operatives’ Association national conference in Montreal discussing the state of the movement.

She said in an interview before the speech that more than 9,000 co-operatives and credit unions and more than 18 million members make it one of Canada’s largest economic and service sectors.

“Having this the year of the co-op is recognition of our importance in Canada and around the world,” she said.

“This gives us an opportunity to present ourselves. Often we communicate mostly with our members, who really are the converted. I think in this year, it behooves us to communicate more with the unconverted to get our message out.”

Perhaps one of those unconverted audiences is the federal government.

In the spring budget, finance minister Jim Flaherty announced the end of an $8 million annual contribution to the Co-operative Development Fund established more than a decade ago to help fund development of new co-ops.

There also were cuts to the co-oper­ative secretariat within Agriculture Canada.

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz defended the cuts by arguing that with 9,000 co-ops and more than $360 billion in assets, the sector hardly needs a few million dollars from the government to support fledgling units.

Bardswick criticized the government decision and argued that if it is true for the co-operative sector, then every other economic sector with strength and assets should also be cut off from government support.

“Many, many corporate sectors also benefit from government innovation funds,” she said. “If that is their view of co-operatives, then all these funds should be on the table for review.”

She also repeated a longstanding credit union complaint that Farm Credit Canada, a federal crown corporation, has an unfair advantage in the financial market because it is backed by Ottawa.

“It is deemed by many to have an unfair advantage,” she said.

“It offers some rates that our members cannot match. If it is a financial player, it should not have an unfair advantage because of a connection to the government.

“If there is a social purpose to FCC operations, then that should be made clear. At the moment, many in the credit union and Caisse system see it as unfair competition.”

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