Co-op or No Co-op?

The law needs to be enforced.

Directors need training and accreditation


Ontarios Ombudsman

A couple of years ago I was told by the office of the Ontario Ombudsman that the Ombudsman might take an interest in dysfunctional co-ops if it turned out that the problem was systemic. I have since learned that Rosseau Farmers Market and Gravenhurst Farmers Market are likely the only two farmers markets in Ontario that are registered as co-ops. If so, then we have 100% non-compliance. That's as systemic as you can get. I'll be getting back to the Ombudsman shortly.

So what's wrong?

A group of people starting a farmers market decide to register as a co-operative corporation because there is a legal advantage for directors.

But they know nothing about co-operatives and have no intention of building a co-op. Most people know very little about co-operatives, though there are about 9000 in Canada, with 18 million members. A co-op is a different way of doing business. A co-op is a social business enterprise, owned and democratically run by its members, for the purpose of realizing common economic, social, and cultural needs. It operates on the principle of direct democracy.

They have the skeleton of a co-op.

A farmers market that is a registered co-operative corporation will have the governing apparatus of a co-op: by-laws, elected directors, general assembly etc. But this apparatus in itself does not make a true co-op. If a farmers market has registered as a co-op but has made no effort to build a co-op, there will be no co-op. Such a market has the skeleton of a co-op but heart and soul are missing.

The keystone principle is Information, Training, and Education.

The heart and soul and spirit of a co-op resides in the values and the principles that are common to the entire international co-operative movement. You can find these on the Net. There are seven principles. The most important for a new co-op is really the keystone for the whole structure: The principle of Information, Training, and Education. Because if this principle is not front and centre at the new market's founding, it will not become a co-op. How can it? No one in the co-op knows what a co-op really is. There is no commitment to co-operative principles and values.

Fake co-ops are parodies of the co-operative ideal.

In such a farmers market, the result can only be a sad parody of a co-operative. And a sad parody of democracy. Directors have no training. Conflict of interest is an almost insurmountable peril. Market founders or re-sellers have more influence than others. The principle of one member, one vote, is therefore subverted. The membership, supposed to be the power base, the ultimate authority, and an active participant in decision making, is submissive and totally useless as a check on board decisions. The law is ignored. By-laws are cited by the directors when it serves them and ignored when it does not.

We are not served by such markets.

It is easy to see how such farmers markets as these do not serve us. As deceit goes unnoticed, or is tolerated, the customer is obliged to fall back on the ancient maxim, Buyer Beware. As for the market vendors, they have no rights in such markets. Either you please the power mongers or you are gone. So much for democracy.

Co-ops are in law required to operate according to values and principles that are universally recognized. And central to the co-op model is co-op democracy. Co-ops that do not conform to the co-op model are in violation of the law. If we can get the law enforced, then dysfunctional co-ops would either need to conform to the co-op model or surrender their co-op status.

Enforce the law.

FSCO (Financial Services Commission of Ontario), the co-op sector's regulating authority (coming under the Ministry of Finance) needs to be more actively engaged with farmers market co-operatives. FSCO needs to know what is happening in these markets.

Directors need Accreditation.

And, with a view to the future, we can make it difficult for such markets to come into existence. No group of people should be given co-operative status and then just let loose. Accreditation is the answer. All farmers market directors, starting with the market founders, should be required to pass a course of accreditation designed to Inform, Train, and Educate them, in accord with the co-op principle of Information, Training, and Education.


FARMERS MARKET