Co-ops: Supporting our True North Strong and Free

  • May 18, 2021
  • Susanne Dandenault, CIC.C

Co-ops: Supporting our True North Strong and Free

In 2018, I joined Arctic Co-operatives Limited, a service federation owned and controlled by community-based co-ops in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon. It is by far the most rewarding job I have ever had, as our efforts truly make a difference in the lives of the people in the North. I am working on matters that are as basic as getting food into communities, while understanding that the Inuit people, for example, are not helpless, but rather need my support and guidance from time to time.

I am continually learning about the lifestyle and culture of community members and how to work within their comfort zone to get my work done. There have been instances where a scheduled meeting was postponed because the narwhal were in the bay and the community was going hunting. I have also learned that summer months are a very busy time for community members, as they are out on the land hunting, so do not expect local board meetings to happen.

The co-op movement has been important to our Arctic communities’ ability to maintain their lifestyle and culture. However, I realize many people do not understand the co-op model, so let’s start with a look at that.

The Co-op Model

Co-ops are organizations owned and controlled by the people who use the products or services the business produces. They operate more for the benefit of their members rather than the benefit of investors. People typically join or start a co-op to enjoy the benefits of group purchasing, pooled risk, and the empowerment of owning and controlling the company, as well as the annual patronage dividend.

Similar rules apply to co-ops as to corporations, such as the requirements of articles of incorporation, directors, annual meetings, voting rights and liability. Significant differences include where members live, as they typically must live in the same community as the co-op; the requirement of bylaws; the profit distribution process (patronage dividend), which is based on members’ use of the co-op’s services or purchase of products; the voting rules, as regardless of the number of shares held in the co-op, each member only has one vote; and the fact that dissolution is upon approval of the membership.

Depending on their financial position, co-ops may provide income to members through annual patronage dividends where certain legislative requirements are met. As mentioned above, individual patronage dividends could depend on the value of the business each member transacted with the co-op that year.

Co-ops around the world operate under the same principles:

  1. Voluntary and open membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Member economic participation
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education, training and information
  6. Co-operation among co-ops
  7. Concern for community

While there are several types of co-ops, here are the key ones:

  • Consumer co-ops: provide goods and services for personal use (retail, housing, financial, childcare)
  • Multi-stakeholder co-ops: serves the needs of different stakeholder groups such as employees, clients and other interested individuals and organizations (usually found in health care, home care and other social enterprises)
  • Producer co-ops: process and market their members’ products and services or may sell in the input necessary for the members to engage in their economic activity (farmers, artisans)
  • Worker co-ops: provide members with work by operating an enterprise (employees are members and owners of the enterprise)

The Importance of Co-ops in the North

In 1965, Canadian Arctic Producers was established in Canada’s North to promote authentic Inuit and Dene art. Many individuals in our three territories are highly skilled artists and their work became a means of income when services started to move into the Arctic, disrupting their nomadic lifestyle. Thanks to the co-op model, they could pool resources and collectively market their work to earn a fair income.

Building on this model, many multi-purpose co-ops were established by individuals in the community to provide a wider range of services to their members and communities, including retail stores, hotel, tourism, cable television and fuel distribution, in addition to the continuation of arts and crafts. In 1972, the Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation was established to serve and support this growing network.

In 1981, Canadian Arctic Producers and the Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation merged to form my organization, Arctic Co-operatives Limited, which is currently owned by 32 member co-ops. Canadian Arctic Producers still exists—it is the wholesale art marketing arm of Arctic Co-operatives, dedicated to promoting Canadian Inuit and Dene art by wholesaling art to galleries throughout Canada, the United States and Europe.

Map of Arctic Co-op member co-ops

As owners, each member co-op receives a patronage dividend annually, which further supports the business, the members and the community. After government, the co-op system is the major employer of Inuit, Dene and First Nations people in Canada’s North.

By uniting under Arctic Co-operatives, these member co-ops benefit from many shared services, such as joint purchasing and the very complex logistics of delivery of products to their communities; accounting and financial reporting; payroll services; project management; interim financing through its lending arm; support for point-of-sale software and hardware; grant writing; and assistance with bidding on contracts.

They also benefit from shared legal services – that’s me and my team of one other lawyer and a legal assistant. We really are decathletes when it comes to legal services in that we try to assist our members however they need us, which may be real estate and financial transactions, commercial negotiations, governance guidance, civil litigation, employment and human rights, to name only a few. My team is based in Winnipeg but some of us have been blessed with the opportunity to travel to Canada’s Arctic several times.

I encourage everyone to go meet the amazing people, see the remarkable landscape and enjoy everything the Far North has to offer. Closer to home, I also encourage you to make a difference in your community by supporting local co-ops and their members.

Susanne Dandenault, CIC.C, is General Counsel at Arctic Co-operatives Limited. She sits on the CCCA National Executive and is a proud member of Red River Co-op. She can be contacted via LinkedIn.

You can check out Arctic Co-operatives at and Canadian Arctic Producers at

Image source: Case Study: Arctic Co-operatives Limited by Margaret Lund, International Centre for Co-operative Management, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University