Canada's co-operative heritage
For more than 150 years, co-operatives have played a major role in the life of Canadians and their communities. The development of Canadian co-operatives was informed and inspired by two parallel movements: the U.K. co-operative movement, led by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers and American farmers movements such as the Grange.
Canada's first co-operative businesses were mutual insurance companies, which were established by farmers in what is now Quebec and Ontario as early as the 1830s. Between 1860 and 1900, dairy farmers in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada developed over 1,200 co-operative creameries and cheese factories to process their products. In the early 1900s, prairie grain farmers created co-operatives to sell their grain directly to millers and exporters. Other farm groups, such as fruit growers and livestock producers, also organized co-operatives in the years before the First World War.
At the same time, workers and farmers came together in Canada's cities, towns and villages to form co-operative stores as an alternative to "company stores" and other privately-owned retail outlets. In 1900, Canada's first financial co-operative was born, when Alphonse Desjardins established his first caisse populaire in Lévis, Quebec, laying the foundation for the credit union movement across North America.
While some co-operatives folded during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, the movement itself grew by leaps and bounds. In Atlantic Canada, study groups at St. Francis Xavier University were responsible for the creation of credit unions, fishing and housing co-operatives, and co-operative stores: an initiative that became known as the Antigonish Movement.
The Canadian co-operative movement continued to grow after the Second World War, expanding and diversifying into the large and successful co-operative sector we see today.
For more information of the history of co-operative movement in Canada, see Co-operative Movement, The Canadian Encyclopedia, written by co-operative historian Ian MacPherson.