A more co-operative Cowichan

Scenes from the industrial revolution colour this weekend’s screening to the documentary Civilizing the Economy. - courtesy Tom Shandel
Scenes from the industrial revolution colour this weekend’s screening to the documentary Civilizing the Economy.
— image credit: courtesy Tom Shandel

Egaltarian answers to valley issues such as affordable housing, agriculture and industry will be examined during Cowichan's U.N. International Year of the Co-operative event at VIU this weekend.

"The idea is to improve the educational awareness of co-operatives in the Cowichan Valley, because it seems the majority of people don't know what a co-operative is," said Rob Douglas, one of the organizers of the event.

"We see co-operatives as a way to create decent-paying jobs, full employment, localize the economy, and give people more control over their lives, because co-operatives are a real form of democracy."

The event kicks off Friday evening with a screening of Civilizing the Economy, followed by a question-and-answer discussion with film writer John Restakis and its director, Cowichan resident Tom Shandel.

The film's first part, Shandel said, examines the success of cooperatives in northern Italy.

"Almost 50 per cent of the GDP in that region — which is the richest region in Italy — is from co-operative enterprise, meaning production co-operatives of all sorts, and that's an amazing reality," Shandel said. "And the reason this is so applicable to B.C. is that it's mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises."

Then on Saturday Vancouver Island University, Island Savings, Transition Cowichan, and the valley chapter of the Council of Canadians also sponsor a workshop exploring the history of the international co-operative movement, plus real-world examples.

"We have a long history of co-operatives in Canada, and B.C. as well — some of the strongest credit unions in North America are here in B.C. and those are made by the working men and women of the province," Douglas said. "And in terms of the Cowichan Valley, one major area for co-operatives is in affordable housing."

The co-operative model applied to housing would see a mix of fixed-income seniors plus low- and middle-income families living in the same building, with rent determined by income.

"The co-operative owns the housing, but you own part of the cooperative," Douglas explained.

There's also the idea of a Harmac-style, worker-owned operation at the struggling Catalyst pulp and paper mill in Crofton, Douglas said.

"And don't forget social care," added Shandel. "That's the fastest-growing sector internationally in the co-operative movement. Think of Cowichan Lodge, for instance. That would have been such a natural subject for a co-op."

"Another area to look at is agriculture," said Douglas. "A lot of our farmers talk about the need for a processing facility. We have a history of farmers and co-operatives here in the valley, and that's another area that could work."

For example, the now-defunct Cowichan Creamery Cooperative was one of the oldest co-ops in B.C., dating back to 1895. It was the first dairy co-operative in the province.

"They sold butter and eggs and dairy products in their own store and set up a feed mill," Douglas added. "The idea of co-operatives isn't something that's new in the valley. It goes way back and we're hoping to revive that idea — and expand on it."

"When you look at our province, it's amazing," said Shandel. "We have the resources, so why don't we keep them here, and use them?"

Your ticket

What: U.N. International Year of the Co-operative events

When: Screening of Civilizing the Economy on Friday at 7 p.m.; Co-op workshop on Saturday between 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Where: In the lecture theatre at Vancouver Island University's Cowichan campus

Tickets: admission by donation


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