Dauphin, Manitoba

For a small town, Dauphin has a lot going on. We arrive a few weeks too late for the massive annual country music festival that draws around 14,000 people to the area, but we did get there just in time to see the street fair that kicks off the Ukrainian Festival. It’s clear that this is a town where people work together to make things happen.

Parkland Industrial Hemp Producers

Keith shows us a variety of hemp developed by the co-op.

Our first co-op stop was the Parkland Industrial Hemp Producers Co-operative. Keith, the Associate Plant Breeder, and Clare, the office manager, have lined up interviews and tours of the area to give us a glimpse of how the crop and the co-op has had an impact on the region. After chatting in the office, we hop in Keith’s truck and head out into the countryside. We stop at co-op member Chris Federowich’s farm, where he tells us all about the equipment he uses to harvest his hemp crops (hemp is notoriously tough on machinery). He and Clare also chat about the role the co-op has played for local producers.

“We go to our processor members first and say ‘how much do you want us to grow for you?’ So they give us their order for the year,” said Clare. “Then we go to our farmer members and say ‘okay, this is how many acres are required, so this is how many acres of production contracts we’re going to do’. The co-op has done that to protect our members so they always have a home for their grain and their grain is always moving. …it’s all about protecting the members, both the buyers and the farmers, so that the buyers’ needs are being met and the farmers aren’t over-growing and ending up with extra grain in the bins.”

The crop also becomes very popular with local kids when, once a year, Chris uses hemp bales to create a giant slip and slide.

Clare and Chris on the Federowich farm.

Remembering the co-op’s champion

On our tour we pass Hemp Sense, a processing business that has started up in the area, as well as miles of fields grown by local farmers. We stand in fields of two different hemp varieties – among the 10 varieties developed by the co-op and named for people who have been involved with it. In a field of “Joey” hemp, Keith and Clare reminisced about Joey Federowich, Chris’ father and one of the driving forces behind the co-op’s start.

Joey’s sharing nature was a big part of the co-op’s ultimate success, Keith said.

“He spent hours and hours on the phone talking to people no matter where about the crop, the machinery, about making it work and growing it. In the early days he was a real catalyst — he got information out to people, promoted the crop and the potential in the industry. He just never gave up.”

When it came time to name a new variety in 2010, the year after Joey passed away, there was no question what it should be called.

Catalyst Credit Union

When we arrived at Catalyst Credit Union the next day, Sisan’s reputation proceeded him.

“You’re the guy who got attacked by the goat!” said CEO Ron Hedley.

Catalyst (now temporarily known as Vanguard Catalyst after a recent merger), like many credit unions in small prairie towns, supports its community in numerous ways. It sponsors sports teams and the local arena, helped the cinema get up and running, and has supported local businesses when other financial institutions would not. In fact, said board member Stephen Roznowsky, many small towns might not have a financial institution at all if not for their credit union.

“Small towns would actually die faster” without their credit union, he said.

A unique tour of Dauphin

At the end of our interview, Ron said “We’ve got a surprise for you”.

The surprise is that the credit union owns a seven-seat bicycle that it brings out once in a while for parades, events, or just getting its staff to work (for fun) — and that we would get to ride it. Several members of staff joined us in pedalling around the main streets of Dauphin, as drivers honked and waved at our strange octopus-like bike in true small-town style.

Aboriginal Designers Co-op

When we arrived at the Aboriginal Designers Co-op in Winnipeg, Iris Lauzon was quietly and deftly sketching lines on a large, blank piece of brown paper. These simple and seemingly easy pen strokes were the very beginnings of what would, when she was finished, become a silver, full-length bridesmaid dress — one of eight — with a beaded Thunderbird symbol on the skirt bottom.

Iris Lauzon

Iris has been a seamstress for many years, having studied under Yvonne Yuen at her design school in Saskatoon. So impressive are her skills that she once created a custom beaded jacket for Senator Murray Sinclair that he wore when he was first sworn in.

Now she is one of four members of the Aboriginal Design Co-op: a small, colourful shop in the corner of what used to be the Neechi Commons. Though it was sad to see the remnants of the Neechi Commons through closed shutters when we visited, that the design co-op still exists is heartening. The local media and word-of-mouth support has been helpful in making sure people know that the design co-op is still up and running, Iris said.

Custom fabric by co-op member Roxanne Shuttleworth

The co-op model is ideal for the craftswomen who own the shop together. It gives them each a place to display and sell their work — clothing, jewellery, paintings, custom fabric, and more — while only having to be in the shop to mind the till one day per week and one Saturday per month. The rest of the time, Iris said, they can each focus on doing what they love — creating things.

“I think it’s a perfect set-up,” she said, “to just have to come in one day a week and then the rest of the time you can work on your pieces.”

Iris tells us this while doing a few quick measurements and then drawing the outline of the back of a dress in the paper in front of her. She’s lost count of the number of times she’s done this, and admits that even when she’s not working, she’s designing in her mind. Above her is a small sign that she embroidered and placed above the counter: “I might look like I’m listening to you, but in my head I’m sewing”. 

The Power of Alberta: a farmer-owned terminal and DIY utilities

In July, we hopped in the car and drove to Alberta to visit two co-operatives helping rural areas grow and thrive.

We first arrived in Westlock, Alberta, a town north of Edmonton built on agriculture, with the railway at its heart. Westlock Terminals – a well-known New Generation co-op built through the innovation, grit and vision of local farmers – is a prominent fixture of the community.

Westlock Terminals

Westlock Terminals in Westlock, Alberta.

Westlock Terminals is an independently operated grain terminal located on a CN Rail line. The profitable co-operative business is owned by hundreds of shareholders from the surrounding area.

Their website says the terminal is owned by “a blend of farmers and business people” who benefit from “regular returns to shareholders through the dividend yields of the Class “C” shares as well as the incentive yields of the Class “D” shares.” 

Westlock Terminals Chief Executive Officer, Clifford Bell.

The CEO, Clifford Bell, was kind enough to tell us all about the co-operative and the ways the business benefits local farmers. When we asked if there were any local farmers we could speak to, he took a quick look around.

But he didn’t need to look far.

Just outside Clifford’s office, Hank was waiting for his truck to be unloaded. Hank was happy to tell us about how much he appreciates having Westlock Terminals as an option for his grain. 

Hank farms in the area with his two sons, and is an investor in Westlock Terminals. While we’re chatting, he also mentions he used to sit on the board of his local retail co-op in Neerlandia and urges us to check it out too.

“Co-ops are good, I think they’re great,” he said. “…Co-ops take support, eh? You’ve got to support them and do business with them…I’m a very strong co-op supporter, and all my family is.”

The more we spoke to Hank, the more he wanted to tell us about the Neerlandia co-op: “It’s been a really, really good place to do business. It’s paid good dividends…we’d have spent that money anyway on crop inputs, [but] we wouldn’t have got to share in the profits [if we shopped elsewhere].”

Instrastructure and community

Later, we visited Ralph Legriger — Mayor of Westlock — who not only answered our questions about his community but gave us an amazing tour of some of his favourite parts of town.

Westlock Mayor, Ralph Legriger.

The Westlock Rotary Spirit Centre is an impressive facility for a small community, and contains a rink, fieldhouse, track, and gym. Inside is a mural that Ralph wanted to show us, made up of tiles painted by members of the community. This is a truly spirited community rooted in agriculture and working together.

Next, he introduced us to the Canadian Tractor Museum – which is hard to miss, given that it’s marked by an old tractor on a tall pedestal. (Talk about going the extra mile! As we stood chatting among the impressive collection of vintage farm machinery, a train began to rumble by.

Besides providing investors a positive return on their investment, Westlock Terminals helps ensure the viability of local infrastructure, rail being one example.

People complain about having to wait for the train, the mayor noted as we watched the traffic stop to make way for railcars to pass through town — but he said he asks them: “What’s on that train? Everything that makes the town run.”

Neerlandia Co-op

After hearing Hank speak so highly of Neerlandia co-op, we decided to take a quick side trip to check it out. We were not disappointed. Pulling into the parking lot, Sisan remarked: “Forget Neerlandia – this is Co-oplandia.”

The retail co-op is massive: it includes groceries, a home store, liquor store, restaurant, sporting goods, agriculture products, automotive parts and repair, and a cardlock. More impressive? Neerlandia is a town of only about 100 people.

General Manager Albert Mast graciously cut his coffee break short to tell us about the co-op where he started working as a clerk in 1976. He said the co-op started in 1922, and has grown considerably due to the loyalty and support of members that come from miles around.  

Battle River Power Co-op

The next day we headed south of Edmonton to a facility just outside of Camrose with an unassuming building that packs a lot of punch. Because of this place and the dedication of the people inside it, rural residents in the area have power in their homes and have for about 70 years.

Co-operatives First has been a follower and admirer of Battle River Power Co-operative for some time now. When brainstorming places in Alberta that would suit The Backroad Diaries, they were a natural choice to include on the tour.

The utility provider has been in business for about 7 decades and was founded (and continues to be run) by independent and entrepreneurial rural Albertans. Their mission is “to provide the best and most cost effective electric power service to [their] 8,500 member-owners.” And they do this with both class and grit.

Their social media is chock full of useful and timely information related to service and benefits, which include a really smart way of supporting local businesses and the regional economy. (Check it out for yourself: It’s awesome!) And they’re line team goes above and beyond to ensure everyone has power.

Rural hospitality

When we contacted Battle River Power’s Communications Manager, Betty, she, in a way that is truly unique to rural areas, also went above and beyond to make sure we felt welcome and were well taken care of. (Thanks, Betty!)

Betty arranged for us to speak to the Chair of the Board and the General Manager of the co-op, as well as a long-time lineman, and the vegetation manager (that ever-important person who ensures trees don’t interfere with power lines). She brought in some loyal members for us to talk to over lunch (which she also provided, bless her).

Bob and Margaret Prestage have been members of Battle River Power Co-op in Alberta since 1975

Not everything went according to plan though. Betty had arranged for us to get some footage of linemen doing some repairs out in the field, but apologized profusely when we had to cancel that part of the schedule due to bad weather. (Weather-wise, rural Alberta can be an unpredictable place.)

The area had experienced some pretty serious thunderstorms over the last few nights, and the linemen were out all night getting people’s power back up and running. (Because it’s more than a 9 to 5 gig – especially when its your friends, family and neighbours who are impacted.) The result of the long night was that the linemen wouldn’t be doing any scheduled jobs that day.

Sisan and Aasa with Glenn, Map Analyst for Battle River Power Co-op

Still, she arranged for us to have a tour of the area with Glenn, Map Analyst and long-time line-man, who drove us around to see some of the houses they provide service to. Glenn also offered up an amazing amount of detail about volts, power lines, and transformers. (You’re in good hands, folks. That guy really knows his stuff!)

The local advantage

Battle River Power Co-op General Manager, Colleen Musselman.

Colleen Musselman, Battle River Power’s GM, said being a co-op is about quality of service – especially when outages hit. Unlike other utility providers that no longer provide service between 11:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., Batter River Power linemen go out immediately and work until everyone’s power is up and running.

In a city, Colleen said, linemen might turn on power for thousands of people with one repair: because the co-op serves rural areas exclusively, they may be working to make sure just one house gets its power back. This reality is what kept large corporate utility companies out the area back in the 40s when REAs were starting up in Alberta. Today, it’s what makes Battle River Power Co-op different from its competitors.

The rural advantage

When an ice storm took down 40 miles of power lines in 2007, linemen worked for five days straight, at times in water up to their waists. Some members were without power for five days or more, but could see how hard linemen were working to restore the line; they pitched in where they could, providing food to the workers, or helping plow access roads.

In that process, Colleen said, they learned “the benefit of what people can do together to really care about people and make a difference.”

A central part of a way of life

At Co-operatives First, we’ve sometimes been told co-ops and Alberta aren’t compatible. We (very politely) disagree. What Westlock Terminals and Battle River Power Co-op show is that the model is very much in line with the entrepreneurial and independent spirit of Albertans.

Like the folks at Westlock and Battle River Co-ops, many Albertans see the co-op model for what it is, which is what helps them use it so effectively. The business model is a great tool for DIY projects, and DIY is very much Albertan. In fact, the model is an excellent option for entrepreneurial and independent people looking to take matters into their own hands, rather than wait for suits out east or government to do it for them.

What a view! Aasa and Sisan taking in the view from the top of Westlock terminals.

Alberta’s REAs, like Battle River Power, can also create an ecosystem in which people get a service they need, good paying jobs are created, and the local economy benefits — especially with a “buy local” policy, such as Battle River Power’s Member Benefits program. Plus, successful co-operative businesses tend to re-invest heavily in the local community, in some cases providing scholarships, sponsoring sports teams or paying for playground equipment.

For many rural Albertans, co-ops are a central part of their way of life. We think co-ops and Albertans are a highly compatible pairing.

A special “thank you” to Cliff, Hank, Ralph, Colleen, Bob, Margaret, Glenn, Betty and everyone else we met along the way for the amazing Alberta hospitality!

Co-op Town: Nelson, BC

When we started thinking about communities we wanted to visit for The Backroad Diaries, one stood out as a can’t-miss: Nelson, British Columbia. This town of 10,000 is tucked in the Selkirk Mountains of BC’s West Kootenay region, and in addition to an abundance of natural beauty it hosts an abundance of co-operatives. We wanted to know why.

Upon arriving we checked into The Adventure Hotel: a bright yellow heritage building in the centre of town. We sat down to Google-map the co-ops we planned to visit during our stay, to get the lay of the land. We soon discovered we were well-situated.

The Adventure Hotel, Nelson

Sisan: “Where’s the bakery co-op?”

Aasa, google-mapping: “It’s…a six-minute walk from here”.

S: “The Community Health Co-op?”

A: “…six-minute walk”.

S: “City Hall? We’re going to talk to the mayor.”

A: “Six minutes.”

S: “Where’s the grocery co-op?”

A: “It’s across the street.”

S: “Kootenay Co-op Radio?”

A: “Around the corner.”

As a local remarked shortly after we arrived: “You can’t swing a co-op without hitting another co-op around here.”

As we chatted with people around the community, the reasons for the existence of all these co-ops were unveiled. Some people pointed out the groups who moved to the area during its history, including the pacifist Dukhobors in the early 20th century, and American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. Others talked about how Nelson doesn’t have a dominant industry on which to base its economy. These factors, it seemed, added up to a community where people pulled together and created things for themselves.

Because Nelson is a place where people understand the co-op model and its value, more people use it when coming up with local solutions. Co-ops beget more co-ops.

We spent our days traipsing around laden with camera equipment and recording devices, attracting the attention of strangers on bicycles. We passed men in the park practicing yoga poses by putting their legs behind their heads, troubadours strumming guitars, and – on the evening before the Senate vote to pass marijuana legalization – two young men smoking a joint on a park bench over-looking the city.

“Tomorrow it will be legal!” called out a cheerful passer-by.

We quickly learned that marijuana production has a long history in the region, and makes up (some say) around 30 per cent of the economy.

Legalization brings some interesting and exciting opportunities, which — unsurprisingly — one group in the area is using the co-operative model to capture. (Todd Veri — above — is involved in the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-operative, which will grow outdoor cannabis).

Throughout our stay we also noticed a trend: that many of the people who make up Nelson were not born in the area, but came to visit at some point and just decided to stay. We could certainly see the allure: some stay for the scenery and the opportunities for outdoor activities, some for the artistic community or hippie-vibe, others enjoy the peaceful seclusion of being tucked into a tree-filled valley. Whatever the reason, they’ve chosen to be part of a community that is, perhaps above all else, co-operative.

To see more about the co-ops we visited, follow us on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).