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Cheticamp's Co-ops

by Sean Kelly (Fall '94)

On the northwest coast of Cape Breton Island, at the gateway to the Highlands National Park and the famous Cabot Trail, lies the small Acadian community of Cheticamp. Sandwiched between the sea and the highlands, Cheticamp may look like other Maritime coastal towns, but there is a big difference; the town's 10 co-operatives form the economic backbone of the area. They provide over 300 jobs with a total annual payroll of $2.3 million, and pay out $700,000 a year in dividends to community members rather than to distant shareholders.

Acadians settled in Cheticamp in 1785, thirty years after their expulsion from Nova Scotia at the hands of the British. Since that time, Cheticamp has maintained its cultural identity and independence from the English and Gaelic world surrounding it. But for a community based primarily on fishing, it was difficult to protect itself from the inequities of economics. For many decades, fish caught off the shores of Cheticamp was sold at unfair prices to an outside fish-buying merchant monopoly that reaped the profits. The story changed in 1917 however, with the establishment of a fish sales co-op, the first sales co-op in the Maritimes. Members of the co-operative, all residents of Cheticamp, now shared a larger cut of the profits that had once flowed out of their community.

 

In 1933, a second fish co-op was formed, and in 1936 the Cheticamp Credit Union opened its doors. By this time, the famous co-operative pioneers Moses Coady and J.J. Tompkins from St. Francis Xavier University had arrived on the scene, and co-op study clubs began meeting weekly around kitchen tables. Several more co-operatives soon followed.

Arriving in Cheticamp today, a visitor can stop at the credit union (with 2800 members and over $6 million in assets), the co-op food store (1400 members and close to $7 million annual business), a senior citizen's housing co-op, an agriculture co-op, a youth employment co-op, an insurance co-op, a handicraft co-op (which includes a restaurant and museum), and the fish co-op. (The fish plant is owned by the workers -- who are unionized -- and by the fishers, making it both a producer and worker co-op.) And while there, the traveler should visit the agency that binds the 10 local co-ops together into a united force -- the Acadian Co-operative Council, established in 1987. The Council was created to bring together all co-op representatives to discuss common concerns in their co-operatives and the community. In 1987 the Council, with some funding assistance from the provincial government, was instrumental in saving the fish plant from financial failure.

In a community of less than 5,000 people, the combined membership of the local co-ops is almost 13,000. As the manager of the Co-op Council proudly points out, "that works out to be about 2.5 memberships for every man, woman and child."

Why has Cheticamp been so successful? There are many factors at work. Certainly, the movement has been blessed with a dedicated and long-sighted leadership. On-going educational efforts have also reinforced the co-op message among members and the community at large. A commitment to reaching out to young people has ensured the movement's continuity. Recently, the Council has initiated a youth apprenticeship scheme which has youth members sit in on co-op board meetings to observe proceedings and participate in discussions.

Most importantly, Cheticamp has a deep-rooted sense of community and identity, a product of centuries of economic deprivation, ethnic isolation and geographic remoteness. Some joke that Cheticamp's isolation protects it from evil outside influence. What distinguishes the people of Cheticamp, suggests Greg MacLeod of the University College of Cape Breton, is that "they have transformed their cultural solidarity and their social solidarity into an economic resource."

The Cheticamp co-ops are not without problems, however. There is a belief among some local private stores that the co-ops are actively pushing them out of business. Local producers of food and other products often have difficulty getting their products on co-op shelves; many stocking decisions are made outside the area by Co-op Atlantic, a wholesale/retail network of 172 co-ops to which the Cheticamp food co-op belongs. And the co-ops and community of Cheticamp are certainly not immune to problems outside their borders. The closure of the Atlantic fishery will hit the area hard -- the fish co-op has been the largest single employer in the group of ten.

But with a successful track record of co-operation to solve their problems, Cheticamp stands a better chance than most to survive as a community, on their own terms.

 
   


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