By Tony Patterson
The local Liberal MP had a really bad day mid-month when he took on the case of the vanishing Confederation Park subway station. Big mistake. His intrusion into the affairs of another level of government was brutally slapped down by Mayor Jim Watson in a rare public chastisement. Wounded, the MP quietly backed off.
But by the end of May, Mr. Bélanger had recovered to become a star among his parliamentary peers. Appointed May 6 by interim party leader Bob Rae as “advocate” for the co-operative sector in Canada, within days he had conceived a daring – some would say impossible – strategy and got it approved in the Liberal caucus.
May 30 was an “opposition day” in the House of Commons. The newly minted co-op advocate would use the time to speak positively about the sector, point out that 2012 is the UN’s International Year of Co-operatives and issue a call to action.
The specific action he proposed was something of a Hail Mary pass, not to say a non-starter. He called for creation of a committee that would sit through the summer to study the status of co-ops in Canada.
But he and other opposition members in the House were gobsmacked when the Harperites caught the pass and said, in effect, “Let’s get to it.”
Turns out the Conservatives know there are co-ops in every riding, not least in the West, where co-ops have a dominant position in the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The committee was named. An agenda was set July 10 and witnesses scheduled. Hearings ran through the last week of July. A report is to be ready for the House when it returns from recess in September.
There are a surprisingly large number of players in the co-op sector. Not to mention big bucks. Co-operatives – including credit unions – control assets of more than $250 billion and employ 150,000 people. More than 18 million Canadians are members of about 9,000 co-operatives, including 2,200 housing co-ops, which are home to more than 250,000 people (full disclosure: I’m one of them).
There are more than 1,300 agricultural co-ops, 650 retail co-operatives, 900 credit unions and caisses populaires, about 450 co-ops offering child care or early childhood education, more than 600 worker co-ops — owned by the employees — with a total membership of more than 13,000, and more than 100 health-care co-operatives.
There are many rural and northern communities where the co-op is the only game in town for child care, health, supplies and financial services. More than 1,100 communities rely on a local co-operative credit union as their only financial institution.
But co-op signs are also large and many are in major cities across Canada. Here in Ottawa as throughout Quebec, Caisse Desjardins takes a back seat to none in financial matters. A huge co-op more than a century old, it ranks just behind the big five chartered banks.
While it’s useless to predict the outcome of the current parliamentary initiative, you have to respect whatever will bring MPs to meet in Ottawa in July. Mr. Bélanger – whose riding runs right up beside Parliament Hill and has never elected anyone unLiberal – asked for the co-op portfolio, which hadn’t existed
in any party before.
He also had himself named “advocate” rather than “critic,” a crucial and original distinction. No dummy he. In an age of questionable economic models, some of which have tipped the world toward financial panic and gridlock, there is something stable, solid and community-supportive in co-operatives. Their value may be about to be rediscovered. If so, a whack of credit will have to go to the member for Canada’s most predictable constituency.
Tony Patterson is editor of SCAN (email@example.com)