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United Nations sheds light on co-operatives

Model takes many forms from horse stables to banking institutions

People in Richmond are likely familiar with co-operatives in the financial and insurance sectors like Coast Capital Savings and The Cooperators. But what about places like the Red Colt Equestrian Farm Co-op on No. 2 Road, or the several housing co-ops spread out all over the city?

Increased public exposure is one of the purposes of 2012 officially being named the International Year of Co-operatives by the United Nations, said Donna Balkan, communications manager for the Canadian Co-operative Association. Launch celebrations are being held all over the country tomorrow, Jan. 12, with B.C.'s taking place at the VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver at 8 a.m.

"It's a very important way to increase the visibility of co-ops across the country," she said, adding they are as diverse as private businesses ranging from retail to health care to environmental consulting.

The cooperative model offers an alternative to both the free market and welfare state models of governance. And in this time of Occupy protests and growing unease with our current economic system, it's a model who's time has come, according to local activist De Whalen.

By definition, a co-operative is an enterprise that is owned and democratically controlled by its members. At Coast Capital, for example, people opening new accounts are required to deposit $5 in "member shares" that represent partial ownership of the financial institution. Subsequently, that gives them the right to vote in the annual directors election and also nominate candidates to the board of directors.

"(Co-operatives are) also very, very involved in their communities - they give funding to community organizations and are very involved in environmental and sustainable development," said Balkan.

Employees at B.C.'s second-largest credit union - behind fellow co-operative Vancity - are also members, and are encouraged to join their "Good Karma Crew" where they perform local volunteer work at the likes of school clean-ups or at the food bank, said Jas Dhillon, assistant manager at Coast Capital's Richmond Centre branch.

"I volunteered at the city hall (Richmond Sunset) Rotary Club tree decorating (in November)," said Dhillon. Coast Capital sponsored a tree at the Winter Wonderland event that raised funds for the club's community initiatives.

In years past, when the financial institution was still known locally as Richmond Savings, a certain percentage of profits earned by the company were paid out to its members. Now, that percentage is reinvested into the community to support youth and families, she said.

This all falls under the seven co-operative principles that serve as overarching guidelines: Voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education; training and information; co-operation among co-operatives; and concern for community.

These qualities are also exemplified by the 17 co-operative family housing complexes in Richmond. New residents, like at a credit union, purchase initial shares and then lease the units. They then collectively own and manage the complex, said Whalen, chairwoman of the Richmond Poverty Response Committee (RPRC).

"It's an affordable alternative (to buying property). You put a little money down and you have a secure place to live - it's a complete community with old folks, young folks, families. Everybody pitches in to take care of the property co-operatively," said Whalen.

The appeal behind this type of development is of course the affordable pricing, but also the diversity that it creates. There are a certain number of subsidized units set aside where those struggling to make ends meet pay what they can afford, which is unlike regular wholly government-subsidized housing developments where all residents must be considered low-income to rent.

"You could have folks with low income, you could have folks with high income; they can all live together," she said. "The co-op model works well with the pride of ownership and living in a complete community. It's not like the gated communities we see here now."

That is what drew Art Gold, president of the board for Sunset Point Housing Co-op, to live at the Steveston co-operative.

"A lot of (the kids at Sunset) go to the same school and a lot of people work early, so we'll have other members who will take care of their kids and get them to school," he said.

Gold also pointed out they "plug in" to the surrounding Richmond community as well by allowing people an affordable place to live.

Whalen, whose job at the RPRC is partly to help struggling individuals and families find places like Sunset Point to live in, said many people in other countries simply can't and don't subscribe to the "Canadian/ American dream" of home ownership - a dream that is often unrealized here as well.

"(The average wage in Richmond is) $46,000. How the hell are you supposed to get anything with that?" she said.

Whalen said with the increased demand for rental stock, it's time for the government to recreate this housing model. The majority of the existing complexes were built by the federal Liberal government of the day in the 1970s and '80s, before they decided to back out of the housing market.

For more information about the launch event, or co-operatives in Canada, visit