Tantramar co-operatives offer significant benefits to local communities

Katie Tower
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Co-op Week to be celebrated Oct. 13-19

Above, Energreen Builders workers are busy with a project at the Campbell Carriage Factory.

Next week, co-operators across the country, including those in Tantramar, will be celebrating their place in the community and the impact they have made on the lives around them.

With national Co-op Week 2013 set to take place from Oct. 13-19, members of the local co-operatives say they are proud of the benefits they have been able to provide to their communities through their business or social enterprises.

Maureen Allen of Advance Savings Credit Union in Port Elgin says there are a number of economic and social advantages to having a co-operative set up in your town.

“Local employment opportunities are available, savings are provided to members, and business decisions are made locally, as the co-operatives are owned and controlled by the members it serves,” says Allen.

Eric Tusz-King of Energreen Builders Co-operative says co-operatives are different than the typical business model in that they rely on committed memberships to make them work.

Energreen is a worker co-operative where each member, or employee, has a vested interest in its success. The business is owned and controlled by its nine members, who each bring unique construction experience and skills to the table, while also learning from each other and gaining new skills through workshops and training programs.

Tusz-King, who is also the Atlantic director for the Canadian Worker Co-Op Federation, says because the members are also stakeholders in the business, then co-operatives tend to be more resilient in the face of economic hardships.

“They have the flexibility of meeting the economic and social demands of their members,” he says, “so their ability to weather those storms is a lot easier.”

During economic slumps, for example, the members can make collective decisions to “get through it,” says Tusz-King, such as providing partial work to all of the employees until the economy recovers rather than fully laying one or two members off.

“It’s an example of democracy in economics, to share the wealth and create more equity,” he explains.

Co-operatives also help to mobilize people in their own towns as well, he says, helping to develop a community-building spirit.

“It helps people take responsibility in other parts of the community as well.”

In Tantramar, there are nearly a dozen co-ops of different kinds, ranging from financial co-operatives to social co-operatives, producer co-operatives, worker co-operatives and more. Tusz-King said all the co-operatives in the region are accommodating and supportive of each other and also help to promote one another.

Some of these co-ops have been around for over 50 years, such as the Botsford Westmorland Grasslands Co-operative and the Aulac Forage Co-op, collaborating in using the rich Tantramar dyke lands.

Also serving farmers and those of us who like to eat are Co-op Atlantic Grocery Stores and Northumberland and Scotsburn Dairies. Others provide woodland management, forestry supplies, and agriculture supplies to their rural members and public. Then there are credit unions offering financial services, and insurance co-operatives. Sackville is also home to the Marshwinds Housing Co-operative, which supplies rent-to-income and market housing for 20 families.

More recently, EnerGreen Builders, a workers-owned co-operative, brought together carpenters and other tradespeople to build energy efficient homes.

And early in 2011, Open Sky Co-operative opened in Middle Sackville to make available a residence and vocational support on an organic farm for young adults who experience barriers in the traditional workplace.

Margaret Tusz-King, a co-founder and member of Open Sky, insists that co-operatives, as a business model, particularly work well when the business or community does not have a lot of resources.

“In a co-operative, there is a more equitable distribution of wages and profits, unlike most other businesses where one person 'at the top' can earn many times more than the workers,” she says. “So when you aren't paying an extraordinary amount to an upper level of management, you have an ability to increase wages for the workers, or even employ more people for the same money.”

Tantramar has the capacity to develop even more co-operatives, says Margaret, which would be a “great fit” for the region because there are skilled people seeking employment and there is a strong sense of community that could come together and support a new locally-based enterprise.

And since all the profits of a co-operative stay with the members and the community, it increases the general wealth of the region.

To help generate more interest and help spread the word about the co-operative model during Co-op Week, the Tantramar co-ops will be hosting a film showing next Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Vogue theatre in downtown Sackville.

Shift Change: Putting Democracy to Work is a documentary from award-winning filmmakers Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin that tells the story about how worker-owned co-operatives are reshaping the economy around the US and Spain.

“It’s a really good story, talking about different places where co-ops are doing well,” says Tusz-King. “It’s about employment and about building a community differently . . . how people can change things for themselves.

The showing of Shift Change is free and open to the public but contributions would be appreciated. Discussion about the film and how to set up co-operatives will follow.

Tusz-King says he hopes the film will generate conversation and appeal to those who are looking to start up a co-op or university students who may be looking to “do something meaningful in their business life in the future.”

Organizations: Co-op Week, Advance Savings Credit Union, Botsford Westmorland Grasslands Co Aulac Forage Co Marshwinds Housing Co Open Sky Co Vogue theatre

Geographic location: Tantramar, Port Elgin, Sackville US Spain

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