- Aasa Marshall

How newcomers are using co-ops to succeed in Canada

For newcomers, barriers to well-being can be bigger and more complex than for much of the Canadian-born population.

Newcomers often experience isolation when they arrive in their new country. Coming up against language barriers, being unfamiliar with the culture, and not having a social network to rely on can make it difficult to build a support system. Plus, a lack of “Canadian work experience” and having foreign credentials not recognized in Canada can make meaningful or stable employment hard to attain.

The co-operative business model is providing a solution for some groups of newcomers.

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IMAGE: Working group in Lloydminster, AB looking to develop a retail co-operative.

Often used to create services, income, and social networks for themselves, co-ops can also be a source of social cohesion, networks of support, training and education, and professional development.

Overwhelmingly the top-choice for newcomers using the co-operative model is a consumer co-op financial services type of business. According to a Canadian Co-operative Association report, newcomer credit unions have around 150,000 members and provide more employment to newcomers than any other co-op model.

Worker co-ops

The second most popular option is the worker co-operative model. Forming or joining a worker co-op is a good option for overcoming employment barriers, and this unique business model can be shaped to suit the skills, experience, and knowledge of the workers.

Because a clear priority of this type of co-operative is to provide employment, businesses with this structure also often focus on paying a living wage – something very difficult for a newcomer to obtain through more traditional employment.

The International Women’s Catering Co-operative (IWCC) in Victoria B.C. is an example of newcomers creating opportunity for themselves. The business was incorporated in 1999 and provides a way for newcomer women with culinary skills to become a business owner and earn an income.

The co-op rents a commercial kitchen from a community centre on a per-diem basis and sells its goods largely at outdoor markets from May and October. In the off-season, they cater events or sell at special markets or fairs. The business’s product offering reflects the diverse cultures of its worker owners, and ranges from curries to empanadas.

IWCC has a Business Manager who oversees marketing and administration, and a Production Manager who manages the kitchen. The other members – production workers – do food prep and cooking, sales, delivery, and other tasks.

The co-op’s goals are not only to provide a source of income for its workers, but also a supportive atmosphere in which to work and make friends, learn or enhance skills (including business management and English), and to provide a way to feel like part of the wider community.

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Another excellent example in Canada is the Enviro-safe Worker Co-operative in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Formed in 2006 by five Congolese refugees struggling to find stable employment, they formed the business to clean small factories and office buildings using organic products.

At the Malalay Afghan Women’s Sewing Co-operative in Burnaby, refugee women use their skills to make and sell clothing and crafts.  The Taco Pica Worker Co-operative was formed by a group of Guatemalan refugees who opened a Latin American restaurant in St. John, New Brunswick.

Co-ops can also be formed to provide a service to other newcomers. The Multicultural Health Brokers Co-operative in Edmonton was created because some newcomers lacked the confidence to access pre-natal health services, and worried that the views of their healthcare provider might conflict with their own. The 75 brokers that make up this worker co-op help bridge the gap between newcomers and the health care system through a series of programs, and represent 25 different cultural and linguistic communities.

Consumer co-ops

As mentioned, worker co-ops aren’t the only type of co-operative that can be formed to benefit newcomers. Besides financial services and job creation, immigrants have created consumer co-operatives that provide goods specific to their home countries that can’t be found in Canadian stores.

Incorporated in 1936, the Ukrainian Co-operative Association is Regina’s oldest independent grocery store and is also its oldest ethnocultural co-operative.

With some support from Co-operatives First, a group of people originally from the Philippines is working to establish a co-operative in Lloydminster. The goal of this co-op is to provide that community’s large Filipino population with staple goods from home. Coming from a country with a strong co-operative sector, a co-op seemed a natural fit this group.

The emergence of other types of ethnocultural co-operatives has mirrored influxes of immigrants in Canadian history. For example, a wave of credit unions started in the early 1930s as large numbers of European populations arrived. These financial services co-operatives were formed to meet the specific needs of newcomers from countries like Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Baltic countries.

Another increase in co-operatives by immigrant groups arrived when the Canadian government implemented the Co-operative Development Initiative in 2003, which set ethnocultural co-operatives as one of its priorities.

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Housing co-ops

The number of ethnocultural housing co-ops in Canada increased starting in the early 1970s and early 1990s, dates that coincide with an increase in immigration from Asia and Latin America.

For newcomers, forming housing co-operatives has the obvious benefit of creating community, providing secure and safe housing and creating communal efficiencies, which can help with affordability.

The newcomers challenges and supports

Though co-operatives have many advantages to offer newcomers, creating them is by no means easy. All of the challenges of starting a business are increased for people who are unfamiliar with the Canadian regulatory and legal environment, lack access to social and financial capital, and may not be fluent in an official language.

Often the extra support these groups need can come from partnering with immigrant settlement organizations and other non-profits. The IWCC had the support of the Intercultural Association of Victoria when it first started up. The EnviroSafe co-operative’s success was aided by an organization called SEED Winnipeg (which stands for Supporting Employment and Economic Development). These organizations, and many others, are familiar with the specific needs of newcomer populations and can help them find support and resources to get their businesses started.

Co-operatives First provides expertise and support for the development of new co-operatives. We look forward to partnering with settlement organizations and newcomer groups interested in pursuing a co-operative business. Contact us to learn more.