Co-ops and social enterprises have been part of Quebec’s economic landscape for decades – anyone who has opened an account at the Caisse Desjardins or bought Natrel or Agropur milk has interacted with one.
However, the participation of Quebec’s English-speaking communities in the formal co-operative economy is relatively limited.
The Social Solidarity Economy English-speaking Network, or SEENet, is a service network established in December of last year by the Regional Development Network (RDN) with funding from the Sécrétariat pour les relations avec les Québécois d’expression anglaise. Its raison d’être, according to RDN social economy officer Olivia Champagne, is to help English-speaking organizations and entrepreneurs navigate the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles involved in setting up a co-op or social enterprise.
There are several different types of social enterprises, according to Hugh Maynard, the owner of Ormstown-based Qu’Anglo Communications and Consulting and a longtime social economy advocate. A social enterprise can be a nonprofit, a co-op, a mutual or a trust. All types of social enterprises prioritize “the primacy of individual and social objectives over capital,” function with some form of democratic governance and have a voluntary and open membership structure, Maynard says. One notable difference between co-ops and nonprofit social enterprises is that any surplus generated by a nonprofit must be reinvested back into the business itself, while surplus generated by a co-op can be distributed to its members.
Maynard cofounded Entreprise sociale les Iles, a bilingual social enterprise that runs a bakery and tourism activities during the summer, on the Magdalen Islands; more recently, he became the publisher of the Gleaner, an English-language newspaper serving the Chateauguay Valley that also functions as a social enterprise. He believes that the social economy provides opportunities for new businesses, but can also create continuity for existing businesses that would otherwise have to close, especially in rural communities.
“The Gleaner is a good example of this,” he explains. “In 2018, the commercial owners of that publication said, ‘This is not viable.’ To their credit, they came to the community and said, look, this is a historic English institution. It’s been around since 1863. The least we can do is give you the chance to give it a try.” In 2019, the Gleaner was acquired by Chateauguay Valley Community Information Services, a purpose-built community-owned social enterprise.
“To me, [the social economy provides] a way to do things that the private sector won’t take on or has not succeeded, and there’s also a collective aspect to it – it’s about community, it’s about a better world, it’s not just about making money,” says Maynard.
Maynard points out that Quebec’s English-speaking communities have a strong tradition of volunteerism and a history of pulling together to establish their own schools and hospitals, but have yet to get on board with the social economy in large numbers.
SEENet is hoping to close that gap by liaising between English-speaking individuals or groups seeking to found co-ops and organizations like the Coopérative du développement régional du Québec (CDRQ), which provide support services for co-ops, to make sure documentation is available in both languages. It also aspires to play an educational role, running workshops for community organizations and individuals about different aspects of co-op governance.
Champagne says several English-speaking community organizations have already expressed interest in entering the social enterprise sphere. “We’re going to work directly with community organizations [who are considering starting social enterprises] and providing in person workshops. Also, if you’re just an independent person who has an idea of a project, you can come talk to us and we’ll point you in the right direction depending on how far along you are,” she says.
She hopes that in the near future, SEENet will be able to help English-speaking people and organizations find their place in the co-op economy. “I hope [there will be] a network of English- speaking cooperatives… within rural Quebec that are all working together and supporting each other, because I think the power of the cooperative movement lies in working together, instead of competing.”