A More Equitable Economy Exists Right Next Door

By Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities.  He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. His website:  JayWalljasper.com. Originally published at Alternet

Business owners gather at an elegant Montreal event center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a large-scale economic partnership.  The former chief of Quebec’s largest bank is the guest of honor.

Sidewalks bustle with people walking in and out of homes, offices, bank, pharmacy, workout studio and coffee shop at Montreal’s Technopole Angus, a development that already sports 56 business with 2500 employees and will eventually encompass a million-square-feet of real estate.

Morning-shift workers unload barrels of paper onto conveyor belts emptying into giant shredding machines on the shop floor of Recyclage Vanier, a Quebec City firm specializing in secure disposal of confidential documents.

A line snakes down the street for a matinee at the Cinema Beaubien, an art deco moviehouse in a quiet Montreal neighborhood. Taxis line up across the street waiting for customers who will soon be getting out of the early show.

Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice rings through the taproom at La Barberie Brewery, located near Quebec City’s business district. Its Belgian-style saisons and blackberry blanc beers are enjoyed throughout the province. A few blocks away, an 18th-century monastery inside Quebec City’s historic walls has recently opened its doors as a hotel and spa.

Welcome to everyday life in Quebec, Canada’s second largest province with 8.2 million people. Yet these scenes of economic activity are different in a notable way from similar ones occurring throughout North America. Each enterprise involves a cooperative or non-profit organization, which together make up 8-10 percent of the province’s GDP.  More than 7,000 of these “social economy” enterprises ring up $17 billion in annual sales and hold $40 billion in assets (Canadian dollars). They account for about 215,000 jobs across Quebec.

Quebec’s social economy (also translated as “solidarity economy”) extends far beyond the province’s two major cities and includes manufacturing, agricultural cooperatives, daycare centers, homecare services, affordable housing, social service initiatives, food coops, ecotourism, arts programs, public markets, media and funeral homes. The capital that fuels all this economic activity comes from union pension funds, non-profit loan funds, credit unions, government investment and philanthropy.

“We always say the social economy is simply the formalization of the commons. It’s social ownership, the goal of which is a sustainable, democratic economy with a market—instead of a market economy,” explains Nancy Neamtan, co-founder of Chantier de l’Economie Sociale, a network of social economy organizations whose anniversary banquet is described above. “Our mission is building a broader vision of what the economy actually is.”

“When Chantier started out, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work. We had unions, women’s organizations, green groups, and many thought it was too diverse,” Neamtan says. “But it does work.” Evidence for her assertion is visible all around—Chantier’s office is tucked into a six story building that takes up most of a city block, all of which is filled with social economy organizations.

Not all of these social businesses are new—some of the credit unions, cooperatives and union pension funds go back a hundred years. “But they were largely invisible to many people until the name social economy became popular,” Neamtan adds.

Quebec’s social economy ranges from a video game creator’s cooperative to a social integration program for Haitian immigrants to a coop grocery in a remote town on the Gaspe peninsula to a network of 8000 home healthcare workers, half of whom were on welfare before being trained for the field.  Here are more examples showing the range of these enterprises:

Groupe Paradoxe: Chantier de l’Economie Sociale’s 20th Anniversary celebration was staged in a renovated church run by Groupe Paradoxe, which teaches at-risk young people job skills in the booming audio-visual presentation, events and meetings industries.

Desjardins Group: The banker honored for his work at Chantier’s banquet was former president of the Desjardins credit union, founded in 1900 and today the province’s largest financial institution.

The Nitaskinam Cooperative: Also on hand at the banquet was Nitaskinam, an Inuit-run cooperative which designs clothing inspired by art of the Atikamekw people, which has doubled from three to six members in its first year. “The social economy is our traditional economic model and fits with our values,” explains co-founder Karine Awashish, who is also an economic development official of this tribal nation. “I see good opportunities for us to create new social economy jobs in forestry, health services, tourism, arts festivals and youth projects.”

UTILE Student Housing Cooperative: One of the youngest entrepreneurs at the banquet, Laurent Levesque, helped launch a student housing development organization with other activists involved in the headline-grabbing 2012 Quebec Student Strike, collaborating with Chantier de l’économie Trust.  “Students pay 70-80 percent more in rent on average,” he explained, “which creates an inflationary spiral” that hurts not just them, but their low-income neighbors.  With start-up capital from the Concordia Student Union and further funding from social economy partners like Desjardins and the province of Quebec, UTILE is set to break ground on apartments for 160 students.

Technopole Angus: It’s no coincidence that that the Desjardins credit union has a branch in the new Technopole Angus sustainable urban village, which brings opportunities to a working class neighborhood that was rocked when the Canadian Pacific Railway shuttered its machine shops in 1992.  A number of historic brick structures were repurposed, and new eco-friendly buildings constructed, with more planned for the project’s phase II.  The community will eventually include 500 affordable housing units, 450,000 square-feet of office space, 20 local shops, four public squares, a bike-pedestrian main street and a one-acre urban farm growing organic produce.

Recylage Vanier: A non-profit organization started 30 years ago by two out-of-work men who realized the recycling industry could benefit the disadvantaged as well as the earth, Recylage Vanier offers training for people struggling to find work because of low job skills, recent immigration, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, or other challenges.  Jobseekers arrive here for a 24-week program that emphasizes work readiness and life skills as well as on-the-job experience.  Most are long-term unemployed, who have been sent by the Quebec employment bureau and social service groups.

“They have to get along with a boss, get along with colleagues, master simple tasks and then take on new ones with more responsibility, all the way up to driving a forklift,” says Nicolas Reeves, one of Vanier’s managers.  For the final four weeks, they split their time between the recycling plant and job hunting with the help of staff counselors. About 85 percent of graduates find work, and 10 percent seek further education, according to Reeves. Recylage Vanier faces stiff competition from two private companies in the field, so clients who value the organization’s mission are important to their success—including the province of Quebec, which provides about half their business.

Cinema Beaubien: This is non-profit neighborhood moviehouse explicitly proclaims its mission to “defend the primacy of persons and labor over capital in the distribution of its surpluses and incomes.”  The cinema’s importance as a community gathering spot can be witnessed in the long lines at the ticket booth, where patrons merrily chat with one another rather than staring at their phones. Taxis wait across the streets to whisk moviegoers to their next destination, about half of which are from the Taxi Coop Montreal.  (In Quebec City, all taxi drivers belong to a cooperative.)

La Barberie Cooperative Microbrewery: Operating as a worker cooperative for the past 20 years explains the success of this brewery and brewpub, says general manager Jean-Francois Genest, who joined La Barberie three years ago after running his family’s bookstore and later converting another bookstore into a cooperative. “The co-op is a good plan to keep a place going. Sharing the profits means you attract the best workers. For our part, we try to make their jobs as interesting as possible, offer more holidays and higher pay.” Emilie DuMais, who’s tended bar here for eight years, notes, “You have much more ambition working for yourself than working for someone else.”

Le Monastere des Augustines: A convent dating back to 1700s in the heart of Quebec City’s walled city has just opened as an elegantly renovated hotel, spa, museum and conference center. It is organized as a non-profit in accordance with the social mission of nuns still living there to promote holistic health and spiritual renewal. Besides tourists, spa patrons and participants in corporate meetings, guests also include activist groups holding retreats and health care workers seeking a reprieve from the stress of their jobs.

RISQ: In 1997 Chantier created RISQ (Reseau d’Investissement Social du Quebec), which has invested $25 million in technical aid and capital for social economy businesses, resulting in: 1786 new jobs, 5,119 jobs maintained and job training for 1527 marginalized workers across Quebec, according to their calculations.  RISQ financial analyst Nathalie Villemure, who worked for many years in private banking, notes that they see fewer defaults than commercial lenders. “These people have a cause bigger than themselves, so they work harder and we help them find solutions.”

Fiducie: In 2007 Chantier launched Fiducie, a $50 million “patient capital” (or slow money) fund that provides long term, non-guaranteed loans of $50,000-1.5 million to promising cooperatives and non-profits with less than 200 employees. “We don’t expect to see anything in repayment for 15 years,” says General Manager Jacques Charest. Thirty million of the investment came from union pension funds with the rest from the federal and provincial governments.

What We Can Learn from Quebec’s Social Economy

While Quebec possesses a distinct culture and history, the emergence of a strong social economy across the province provides practical lessons for other places.

Recognize the Social Economy When You See It

Cooperatives and non-profit initiatives already exist throughout the US and most other countries, so the first step is seeing, naming and claiming the social economy as part of the commons we all share.

Look Widely for Inspiration & Ideas

Neamtan points out that the American tradition of community organizing was a big influence on their early work, especially community development corporations (CDCs) that arose to tackle problems of disinvestment in urban neighborhoods. The Dudley Street Initiative, which transformed a low-income community in the Roxbury district of Boston, was a particular inspiration for her. The proliferation of cooperatives in the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain provided another model for bottom-up economic development.

Seek Solidarity

Social economy initiatives benefit from the longstanding sense of solidarity in Quebec, where French speakers were discriminated against and their local economy dominated by English-speaking Canadians, Americans and English.  A analogous situation can be found among racial and social minorities, and in rural and deindustrialized regions where economic power is wielded from outside.

Tap the Power of Government

Government agencies have been a partners and funders in many projects through the years. Social economy initiatives often arose even when conservative politicians were slashing government programs to provide a more humane alternative to strictly market-oriented development. Legislation passed by the left-center Parti Quebecois in 1997 gave the social economy movement a big boost by offering local governments more leeway in supporting community and cooperative efforts to create jobs and promote entrepreneurship.

Partner with Unions

“The labor movement boosted the social economy by making the choice in the 1980s not to just negotiate contracts but to create jobs and support civic enterprises,” explains Neamtan, which led to the creation of the landmark Quebec Solidarity Fund, an $11-billion-dollar pension fund, of which 65 percent is invested in small- and medium-sized Quebec-owned businesses.

Partner with Faith Organizations

Historically, the Catholic church controlled many aspects of life in the province, and priests enthusiastically promoted cooperatives and non-profit institutions as models of the church’s social teaching. By the end of the 20th century when the church’s influence waned in the face of increasing secularization, social economy organizations found numerous opportunities to set up shop in closed churches and convents.  The church remains an ally, Neamtan notes, “especially now that Pope Francis talks all the time about the Solidarity Economy.”

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  1. Carl

    Just to add a small additional example, there’s a co-op brewpub in Austin, Texas called Black Star. We’ve visited many times and, other than the no-tipping rule, it’s indistinguishable from the other establishments in town. You can buy shares in the co-op and that entitles you to attend the board meetings and vote.

    1. Josh E

      My friends in Montreal told me that they went through a deep recession back in the 80/90s when all the (English-speaking) inherited money moved to Toronto. It sounds like that might have created more space for what came next.

      Also, Austin has a large-ish food co-op (Wheatsville) founded when I was a kid in the 70s and still doing well. And after Uber/Lyft left, someone put together the ATX Taxi Coop which has as many drivers as Yellow Cab now.

    1. Katharine

      Yes to both parts of that! I’m glad I read this after the youth unemployment article, which was disheartening; we need to see the evidence of things that work as well as of what is not working.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Yes thank you to the author for this ray of sunshine.

      Just don’t talk about it too loudly though – we wouldn’t want the neoliberal Trudeau finding out all this socialism is going on right under his nez.

  2. divadab

    Canada’s single-payer medical system, “Medicare”, was first implemented by the provincial government of Saskatchewan under the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a farmers’ cooperative party led by the great Tommy Douglas . The doctors went on strike for almost a month, and the insurance industry was universally opposed, but the program was so popular that it succeeded and formed the model for a later federal implementation across the country.

    It was not a simple process and there was much political opposition – but the cooperative movement was very strong among farmers in the prairies who remembered well the depression and the misery it wreaked on rural populations.

  3. Patrick Donnelly

    Does Canada still mine asbestos?

    It is exported to China and then spreads acroiss the world.


    1. JEHR

      “The story of asbestos is a cautionary, disturbing and timely tale. The recent announcement that Canada will enact a comprehensive ban by 2018 is a decision that will save lives and prevent painful diseases caused by exposure to this deadly substance.”

      It took far too long to ban this product. We are still dealing with asbestos found in older buildings.

    2. justanotherprogressive

      I do want to remind you that Yves Smith labeled this post as a “more equitable economy”, not a perfect economy?

    1. diptherio

      The Cooperative Economy website is the best place I know of to keep up with goings on in Rojava.

    2. DJG

      Spring Texan and diptherio: If you can read Italian, you might want the graphic travel / political memoir entitled Kobane Calling by Zerocalcare. It goes into much detail about the historical reasons for the coops and also into women’s roles in Rojava.

  4. Denis Drew


    A unionized company is the marketing equivalent of a co-op. Both ownership’s and labor’s interest act equally in setting the consumers’ price.

    1. diptherio

      Uh….not really. There are union shops, there are worker-owned and managed co-ops, and there are also union co-ops which are worker-owned co-ops in which the owners/workers are also union members. In a union shop, there’s still an adversarial relationship between the ownership and the workers (more for me, less for thee), where in a worker co-op, that relationship doesn’t exist, since the workers and owners are one and the same.

      1. Denis Drew

        Aha! The typical concept (everybody does it) of seeing the conflict (if you will) between owner and labor. The more correct concept is owner/labor v. consumer.

        Sort of: consumer/(owner + labor).

        Both work together (as long as labor is in a position — or as much as labor is in a position) to squeeze the consumer for as much as possible before the buyer goes somewhere else.

        This “emphasis” if you will leads to more accurate intuitive pictures: if co-ops work like the post illustrates, then, we can more naturally accept how well unions work for everybody — while being a lot easier to arrange (unless you are a typical American and have forgotten about unions).

        This “emphasis” tends to remind that labor is sort of bought and sold on margin: e.g., Walmart labor costs are 7% so doubling wages could only add 7% to prices — not much lost business for much higher pay (of course if low end wages are raised across the board either by collective bargaining or minimum wage then that extra pay will likely be spent at lower end wage businesses possibly leading to even higher sales — as the seminal Card and Krueger min wage study showed).

        Basically, this co-op equivalence just takes thinking in a tad bit more depth.

  5. JEHR

    This is a great article: We could learn a lot from Quebec regarding lower University tuition, protests by the people, affordable child care, etc.

  6. Expat

    It’s too un-American. America is all about guns, death, poverty and inequality. Those are the founding principles of our great nation. Those are the things that make America great. Take those away and you have prosperity, health, and happiness. For shame!

  7. A1

    All this is paid for by transfer payments from the west. Remove this transfer and Quebec would look quite a bit different.

  8. diptherio

    “Tapping the Power of Government” is a two-edged sword. Consider this from late 2015:

    For their part, members of “social” and “solidarity” economy groups described grappling with both provincial budget cuts and centralization; they face layoffs and an erosion of localism, a central value of the movements. On a wider level, years of provincial budget cuts to universities — $70 million in 2015-16 alone — plus threats to long-established pensions have hit Montréal hard, inspiring numerous street protests.

    These cutbacks are particularly worrying as both Montréal and Québec have long been beacons of solidarity economics, especially since the 2007 US Social Forum popularized their initiatives. In the 1980s, when global companies shuttered factories, leaving soaring unemployment in their wake, unions began investing more in the local economy. Quebec’s two largest unions created pension funds which, in exchange for a tax credit to those investing in them, are required to invest a majority of their funds in businesses and social economy enterprises rooted in the province. This made them the largest private investors in Quebec.

    In late March, Québec began cutting budget to regional support for the social and solidarity economy, though Chantier de l’économie sociale, a Montréal-based coalition of nonprofit and coop networks, did not receive cuts. The province is also cutting and consolidating grassroots community development organizations, known as Corporations de développement économique communautaire (CDEC). With union members and community residents on their boards, CDECs were key agents of local development, supplying communities with grants and loans from the government, and “solidarity funds” of unions and credit unions. Nonprofits, small businesses and coops have long relied on CDECs for credit and investment in a financial world that typically neglects these interests. Now, far fewer community groups or public agencies will provide this vital service. CDECs continue to exist but are limited mainly to their “workforce development” arms, supporting people excluded from the labor market.


    The thing with politics is that things can change over(election)night. When the resources are flowing in from the gov’t, it seems great, but then a dependence develops and when, inevitably, there is a political shift and the gov’t largesses dries up, our organizations face a situation of being underfunded and without systems for independent financing.

  9. diptherio

    If you’re interested in worker co-ops, solidarity economics, etc., I would like to humbly suggest that you follow the Grassroots Economic Organizing site, which has been covering this beat exclusively since the early 90s.


  10. Susan the other

    We have bad investment rules/regs here controlling what retirement funds can invest their money in – I mean, we let unregulated PE companies take retirement fund money and invest it without adequate explanation or responsibility to the funds, etc… yet, as mentioned above, Quebec’s social economy allows trade union pension funds to reinvest some 65% of that money back into the local economy of small and medium business operations. It has been a serious mistake in this country (US) to disallow that kind of investment. Or equally bad, to allow the shysters and banksters to slurp up pension money promising impossible 8% returns and use it to “invest” so disastrously here in any number of lost causes or outright frauds.

  11. TedHunter

    Thanks for an article showing (yet again) the way to go. It came right on time. After having to read that in the Zombie-world Kuchner will fix it all, I had almost started to doubt the existence of gravity.

  12. Altandmain

    Living here in Canada, there is the good and bad. Within Canada, Quebec is one of the most equal places to live.


    Granted, this situation is not as bad as the US, but it is a problem.

    Job quality is in decline:

    Our tax system favors the rich too.

    Unfortunately things are slowly following the US, not going to the opposite way.

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