Book Review Economy

Book Review: Care, Cooperation and Activism in Canada’s Northern Social Economy

Care, Cooperation and Activism in Canada’s Northern Social Economy. Edited by Frances Abele and Chris Southcott. (2016). Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Not long ago, a national magazine columnist proposed that it was time to “stop pretending that the North is ours and that it defines us.” The truth, he wrote, is that, political rhetoric aside, “[w]e stopped trying to develop it generations ago.” Compared with other circumpolar countries, Canadian governments have shown little inclination to protect sovereignty or to build the infrastructure necessary to exploit the region’s “vast mineral wealth.” As a result, the North remains underpopulated (“empty”), undeveloped, and prone to a long list of social problems (violent crime, suicide, unemployment, and poor health).

Whatever value there is in calling out hypocrisy, the column’s main presumptions are more telling. The first is that it is somehow up to southern Canadians to decide whether the North is truly “ours” – whether “we” are a Northern country. The second is that resource extraction, highways, pipelines, and wage labour are the measures of a real economy. Development, in other words, is what governments enable southern capital and expertise to do.

This book, in short, is a valuable intervention – one that invites North-to-North learning.

As evidence of failure, the column cites a study showing that high numbers of Indigenous Peoples across an unspecified Arctic region “sell arts and crafts to supplement their income. . . .Soapstone souvenirs are actually an important industry” [my italics].

Needless to say, the contributors to Care, Cooperation and Activism see failure and success – and development – in a refreshingly different way. In doing so, they point to a more complex Northern reality – one that makes visible a third sector, the social economy.

The editors distinguish social economy enterprises from both the private sector and the state.  Community-based and participatory, they might resemble businesses in their operations but without the same concern for return on capital.

Beyond that, the third sector is characterized by its range, as the fifteen case studies in this volume demonstrate. Drawn from across the Canadian North, they include a regional archive and history magazine based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a fisheries co-op on the North Labrador coast, a clothing manufacturer in Nunavik that works from local sewing traditions and materials like sealskin, a pre-school head-start program in Igloolik, Nunavut, a summer music festival in Yellowknife, a greenhouse in Inuvik, and a recycling society in Whitehorse.

In different ways, they serve retail, employment, cultural, advocacy, and social services goals. They address local needs. They fill gaps. They build community capacity and skill. They take on new roles, often educational. Sometimes they fail.

In their introduction, the editors of Care, Cooperation and Activism situate social economy organizations in a distinct Northern context: a mix of land-based and wage-based livelihoods, especially in Indigenous communities; a pattern of dependence on large-scale resource projects; and a strong state presence, federal and territorial, that at once carries with it the cultural legacy of colonialism and yet is crucial to offsetting the costs of living in the North.

For the most part, the book can be characterized as descriptive rather than, say, theoretically ambitious in thinking more generally about the social economy. Such an approach fits the purpose of making the third sector visible to itself and to Northern policymakers. To that end, the book’s chapters are accessibly written and attentive to the nuances of real communities. They document origins, transition-points, and challenges. Together, they hold real value for those who work inside the social economy, those who care about the resilience of communities, and those who make policy.

The challenges that emerge across these case studies will not necessarily be a surprise. They include staff turnover and volunteer burn-out, skilled labour shortages, market fluctuations, distance and its related costs, and unstable funding. In one or two cases, chapters also note the work that may be required to sustain social enterprises that bridge Indigenous and settler members. 

All the same, the editors conclude that those challenges are “ameliorated because of the strong traditions of self-reliance and community volunteerism characteristic of northern communities” (p. 221). What’s at stake in their optimism is the potential for social economic enterprises to build local, democratic capacity for self-direction and self-defence against decisions made mostly by and for outsiders. This is essentially the same understanding that once animated the building of co-operatives on the Canadian prairies, where those iconic wheat-pool elevators, now nearly gone from the landscape, were celebrated as “our own statues of liberty.”

This book, in short, is a valuable intervention – one that invites North-to-North learning. It also raises a further set of practical and policy questions.

Clearly the communities studied here do not fit easily into the picture of North as empty, undeveloped, hanging on in hopes of the next mine-start. Instead, they are sites of tremendous social innovation and dexterity under challenging conditions.

First, how do Northern social economy enterprises engage with, and insulate themselves from, national and global market forces of extraction, trade, consumption, and finance? How do they co-exist with major resource projects? How do they help keep local capital in local circulation? How and when should they be “scaling up,” as the title of another recent book puts it, in order to help achieve a more human and sustainable economy?

Second, where do the development corporations, created as a result of modern land claim agreements, fit? How elastic is the category of social economy? Conversely, how do those corporations, as major business players in the North and increasingly in southern hubs, negotiate the inevitable tensions among different kinds of expectations: return-on-investment, member employment, local economic opportunity, self-determination, and Indigenous cultural values? Do they displace or support social economies? This book includes one helpful case study on a Makivik subsidiary in Nunavik, but the subject of the development corporations could easily merit a volume on its own.

Third, what can be learned comparatively across Northern jurisdictions? Since several of the case studies point to the role of governments, usually as a matter of uncertainty, limitation, or neglect, how might policy enable social economy enterprises without reproducing dependence?

Finally, to what extent is a model developed successfully in one community replicable in others? This is meant as a practical question, since the stories told here about community greenhouses, housing societies, cooperatives, and land-based education will be read as inspiration where they don’t already exist. Without expecting a straightforward answer, the question draws attention to factors that are particular to a place: the quality of leadership, say, or a galvanizing crisis, or the available cultural resources that can be adapted to new situations. It ought to prompt community self-reflection.

One of my favourite chapters discusses the community greenhouse in Inuvik. Proposed as a reason to reclaim rather than demolish the old hockey rink at Grollier Hall, the notorious residential school, and built in the face of local skepticism, its initial purpose was simply to address food security issues. But, as is often true of social economies, the greenhouse produces more than a modest supply of fresh fruits and vegetables: gardening knowledge and experimentation, social mixing, health, household composting practices, tourism, programming for youth and elders, trades training, local pride, and a ripple effect up the Mackenzie Valley.

Clearly the communities studied here do not fit easily into the picture of North as empty, undeveloped, hanging on in hopes of the next mine-start. Instead, they are sites of tremendous social innovation and dexterity under challenging conditions. Taken individually, they may represent insignificant contributions to the national economic indicators. Taken together, they merit a book that deserves a wide reading.

Editor’s Note: As Northern Public Affairs’ founding editor Jerald Sabin and managing editor Sheena Kennedy-Dalseg have chapters included in this book, this review was edited by NPA’s online editor Meagan Wohlberg. Neither Sabin nor Kennedy-Dalseg had a role in its production.

Image credit: University of Alberta Press

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