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Mutual Aid is Part of Our Past—and Our Future, Too

in Featured/Opinion by

My newsfeed in recent months has been filled with doomsday predictions as the world grapples with a global health crisis and the economic (and political) catastrophes following in its wake. It is very easy to get caught up in the news, as I have, and feel yourself begin to sink. As I deal with my personal pandemic mental health fallout, looking for grounded solutions has been a boon.

Through the haze, what got me through that period of time between March and June was volunteering. I found myself planning outreach and running errands for people in my area with the Neighbouring Mutual Aid Committee. Mutual aid is just that: people dedicating their time and energy into helping others in their neighbourhoods in a real, direct, tangible way.

An offshoot of the Newfoundland and Labrador Social Justice Co-op, our committee worked to get people the things they needed: groceries, kids activities, craft supplies, internet hookups, someone to shovel their driveway, or even just a personal connection—someone to check in on them. While we did help vulnerable members of the community (low-income, queer, indigenous, and otherwise marginalized groups who were in need) we also helped anyone who asked. Seeing that kind of impact (they needed groceries and now they have some) filled me with a hope I didn’t know I needed. I needed a way back to a sense of community I had lost in the months spent in isolation.

Once you see it, it seems that cooperative action is everywhere as of late. It feels like every time I turn around, I learn about another community organization doing on-the-ground work. I open July’s edition of Time, I read about PUSH Buffalo, an organization that for years has been taking control of their community by rejecting big development and creating affordable and eco-friendly community housing. When the pandemic hit, they switched their focus to getting people food, providing medical supplies, and provided rent relief to community members. I saw an article in Reader’s Digest this summer celebrating Mita Hann’s work in Toronto with Caremongering, for her work in the wildly successful community aid program.

Unbeknownst to many, Newfoundland and Labrador has a long history of co-operative movements. From the housing co-operatives that allowed poor and poverty-stricken fishermen to build and own their own homes in the 1950s through the 1970s, to the Fogo Island Co-operative Society which fought (and continues to fight) to keep jobs and industry in the hands of community members on Fogo Island, working together is one of the ways we have come to survive a very isolated life in this province. Mutual aid has a natural place within our communities, as many were built on the principle of working together and sharing resources. In the days of the fishery, unions boomed as workers began to see their worth and demand better compensation and workers’ rights. Our power, as always, remains with the people as a collective, rather than in the hands of the few.

Historically, times of conflict and tumult have driven people to work together out of necessity. This is especially true when governments can’t seem to keep up with demand for services, like after the first and second world wars, which left Canada poor and Newfoundland destitute. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell was a major catalyst in the development of cooperative action in Newfoundland upon his arrival in 1892. This was followed by the initially short-lived cooperative store in Red Bay, Labrador, which set the model for others to follow. Grenfell then created other networks for locals to sell their homemade wares to decrease reliance on the fish merchants, who were notorious for exploiting the fishermen of the province. (This information is from Sweat Equity: cooperative house-building in Newfoundland, 1920-1974, C.A. Sharpe and A.J. Shawyer, ISER Books, 2016.)

Personally, the news and the pandemic and the associated feelings of impending doom had me asking questions: how much could cooperative action help our current situation? What could that look like?

As Newfoundland and Labrador’s current economic crisis drives us to look for ways to keep money in this province (and keep the lights on), looking toward cooperative action might we one way to keep money in the pockets of those who live here. Most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are familiar with credit unions, as the province has its own in the Newfoundland and Labrador Credit Union. While banks are for-profit enterprises that seek to make money, credit unions are non-profit organizations and seek only to pay their employees and keep the lights on (plus the payouts to shareholders in the org puts profits literally in the pockets of members). That means more money stays in this province, creates jobs, and allows consumers just that much more control over their financial products. This model can be implemented in other areas of business to keep even more money moving in our local economies. Co-ops also endure longer than traditional businesses, and pay dividends to their shareholders (members), most, if not all, will be locals. Not only does a co-operative model allow more money to stay in our communities, but it also allows members a voting share in the business. When the shares of a business are limited to workers the power to make decisions about the business, their working conditions, and the overall operations, rests with them.


“Co-operative Information.” Ontario Co-operative Association. (https://ontario.coop/what-co-operative)

The pandemic has sent the economy into a spiral that TIME magazine literally called a depression. As Husky Energy asks for billions of dollars from the provincial and federal governments, it’s time to think outside oil and gas when we consider the future of the province’s economy. Co-operative businesses are shown to last longer than traditional businesses and the money they make goes back directly to the community. Rather than taking profits out of the province and into the pockets of one rich family (ahem, Galen Weston) that money remains in the hands of community members and thus goes directly back into the local economy.

While this isn’t a be-all-end-all solution to the troubles we face, the future of this province is going to be determined in the coming months. Times of great uncertainty are often catalysts for great change, and what better time to change unfair, unjust systems than now? If government is serious about the provincial economy, we need to think creatively. Creating incentives for new businesses that choose to operate cooperatively, like cash grants, rebates, or tax credits, would be a great start.

Getting ourselves out of our current financial snarl is going to take some teamwork and creative thinking. As we’ve been looking after ourselves for the last hundred years or so, I’m hoping we’ll come out on the other side stronger, together.

Art by N.O. Bozo.

The Social Justice Co-operative is a members-owned cooperative in Newfoundland and Labrador. All upcoming open meetings are posted on their Facebook page. For general news and updates, follow them Twitter: @SJCNL709.

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