History of the co-operative movement

Our co-op story goes back to the 1840’s, to twenty eight weavers in Rochdale, Lancashire, England. Skilled workers were being forced into poverty through mechanization during the Industrial Revolution. These artisans chipped in a pound each to start their own shop with affordable quality unadulterated foods. Any surplus benefitted the community. “The Pioneers decided it was time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness and respect, that they should be able to share in the profits that their custom contributed to and that they should have a democratic right to have a say in the business. Every customer of the shop became a member and so had a true stake in the business.” Within 10 years, the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives.

Housing co-ops in Canada started with the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia in 1861 where members came together to build houses for one another. They too used adult education to achieve their goal to improve economic and social circumstances.

Some of the earliest housing co-ops in Canada were student co-ops, including Campus Co-operative Residence at the University of Toronto, which opened in 1936, and Science ’44 Co-operative, which opened at Queen’s University in 1944. This wave of student housing co-ops continued throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, with co-ops like Neill-Wycik in Toronto.

Today, the co-op movement is huge and important. The International Co-operative Alliance says that at least 12% of people on earth is a cooperator of any of the 3 million cooperatives on earth. Cooperatives provide jobs or work opportunities to 10% of the employed population, and the three hundred top cooperatives or cooperative groups generate 2.1 trillion USD in turnover while providing the services and infrastructure society needs to thrive (GLOBAL 300).

And CHF Canada says that across Canada, there are over 2,200 non-profit housing co‑ops, home to about a quarter of a million people in over 90,000 households.

There are earlier examples of co-operatives than the Rochdale weavers, such as the Fenwick, Scotland weavers in March 14, 1761, who sold oatmeal at a discount from someone’s cottage front room. However, the Rochdale “Pioneers” are considered the founders of the co-op movement because they developed the Rochdale Principles, a set of principles of co-operation that provide the foundation for the principles on which co-ops around the world operate to this day.

The original principles were innovative at the time, but recognizable in our goals today, including fair practices, “one member one vote”, equality of the sexes, elected management, frequent statements and balance sheets presented to members and a fixed percentage of profits allotted to education.

Woodsworth Housing Co-operative follows the international co-op principles. These are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice. This is the version tweaked for housing co-operatives by CHF Canada Vision 2020.

1. Voluntary and Open Membership
Membership in a housing co-op is open to all who can use the co-op’s services and accept the responsibilities of being a member, without discrimination.

2. Democratic Member Control
Housing co-ops are controlled by their members. Each member has one vote. Housing co-ops give members the information they need to make good decisions and take part in the life of the co-op.

3. Member Economic Participation
Members contribute financially to the co-op and share in the benefits of membership. The co-op does not pay a return on the members’ shares or deposits. Instead it sets aside reserves for the future and charges the members only what it needs to operate soundly.

4. Autonomy and Independence
Housing co-ops are independent associations. They follow the laws that apply to them and their agreements with governments or other organizations. But the members control the co-op.

5. Education, Training and Information
Housing co-ops offer education and training to the members, directors and staff so that everyone can play a full role in the life of the co-op. Housing co-ops find ways to tell the public what they are and what they do.

6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
By organizing together in federations, housing co-ops grow stronger and help to build a healthy co op movement. Where they can, housing co-ops use the services of co-op businesses to meet their needs.

7. Concern for Community
Housing co-ops work to build strong communities inside and outside the co-op. They help to improve the quality of life for others and they take care to protect the environment.

For more information on co-operatives in British North America and Canada, see this article from the Canadian encyclopedia: