Cheticamp Co-ops Development: Lessons from an Acadian Community

Atlantic Canadians are losing control of their economy; increasingly, the region has become dependent on federal government transfer payments and transnational corporations for jobs.

A few huge transnational corporations dominate large parts of our economic, cultural and social environments. They achieve this control through vertical integration and diversification. Vertical integration means, in the grocery business for example, that one large corporation controls the farms, food processing plants, wholesalers and grocery stores. Diversificatio n means that a single transnational controls a wide range of enterprises, such as manufacturing, forestry products, banking, the media, real estate and entertainment. This may generate plenty of profit in the Maritimes for these corporations, but it flow s outside to be invested elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are always alternatives.

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 payrol l of $2.3 million, and pay out $700,000 a year in dividends to community members rather than to distant shareholders.< P> 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 rea ped 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 flowe d 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 foo d 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 fi sh 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 govern ment, 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 si t 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 remotenes s. 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 the ir 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 pr oducts 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-ope ration to solve their problems, Cheticamp stands a better chance than most to survive as a community, on their own terms.


Faced with a global economy that is restructuring itself into huge blocks, co-ops are asking themselves what they need to d o in order to continue being an effective economic alternative. Co-op Atlantic is looking to the successes of Cheticamp for answers; a solution can be found in one of the six universal principles that govern the philosophy of co-operatives: co-operation among co-ops.

Many co-ops of various kinds, from financial to fishing, have grown up independently of each other. They may have friendly relations, but few business ties or connections. Co-op Atlantic hopes to change this, and has come up with a si x point, 25-year action plan called Initiatives for Renewal, released in1991.

1. Integrated Co-operative Development

Recognizing the interdependence of the co-op sector and actively pursuing joint projects with other co-ops. These projects would be mutually beneficial to the co-ops involved and meet each other's needs.

2. Facilitating Co-operative Development

Contributing to the development and growth of co-ops in all sectors of the economy. The first step is to encourage the formation of lo cal co-op development councils. This is considered one of the most important parts of the renewal process because it involves people at a local level, in their communities.

3. Capital Formation

Rethinking the way co-ops use the surplus money (profi t) generated by their businesses. Co-ops have traditionally given the money back to their members as dividends. The members could decide instead to put that capital into community controlled co-ops.

4. Stakeholder Control

Creating opportunities fo r all stakeholders (e.g., producers, consumers, workers) to own and control their co-ops.

5. Communication and Education

Developing an understanding among co-op members and the public of the characteristics, benefits and need for a co-operative econ omy.

6. Responsibility to the Environment

Ensuring co-ops have a positive impact on the ecology of the region.

This last point is critical to a region as natural resource-dependent as the Maritimes. Many believe co-operatives are inherently co nducive to an ecological lifestyle. But are they? Have the fishers and fish plant workers of Cheticamp, for example, determined the environmental effects of the various fish catching technologies they employ?

Ecologists may hope for too much from co- operatives when the making of profit is necessary to their survival. Yet it is probably true that the production of socially useful goods and services, and the careful use of resources, is more likely to be a major aim among the members of a co-operative than of a conventional profit-only firm. It is also true that environmental sustainability will only be achieved within a cultural and economic climate that embraces the appropriate ecological values, and co-operatives are certainly not immune to changi ng societal values.

We need to remember that on-going education is an established principle of cooperation, and we need to add ecological principles. A truly ecological co-operative would:

* provide socially-responsible products and services that a re not damaging to the environment * be part of a coordinated but decentralized community-based economy * increase the political and environmental consciousness of co-operative members * promote increased community self-reliance

The co-operative method of economic organization carries with it the seeds of a new society. However, individual co-operatives adopting the ecological characteristics cited above will face countless obstacles within a capitalist economy; there must be a transition from individ ual co-ops to a co-operative community -- an integrated system of co-operative enterprises -- connecting to the wider society as a whole.

Written by Sean Kelly, March 1994.

From the "How to Live in the Real World" education kit, created by the Nova Scotia Environment & Development Coalition.

References: Worker Co-op , Vol. 11, No. 1, 1991; The Moment, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993; The Cheticamp Experience (video), University College of Cape Breton, 1992; Worker Co-operatives in Theory and Practice, Mary Mellor, 1988; personal interviews.

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