A More Equitable Economy Right Next Door—Quebec

—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.

—Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice rings through the taproom at La Barberie Brewery, located near Quebec City’s business district. Their Belgian-style saisons and bestselling 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 2nd 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 7000 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.

“The social economy is 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:

Chantier de l’Economie Sociale’s 20th Anniversary celebration described above 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.

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.

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. “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.

Technopole Angus is a sustainable urban village, which brings opportunities to a working class neighborhood that was rocked when the Canadian Pacific Railway shuttered its machine shops. A number of historic brick structures were repurposed, and new eco-friendly buildings constructed, with more planned . 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.

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.

Operating as a worker cooperative for the past 20 years explains the success of this brewery and brewpub, says general manager Jean-Francois Genest. “Sharing the profits means you attract the best workers. Emilie DuMais, who’s tended bar here for eight years, notes, “You have much more ambition working for yourself than working for someone else.”

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 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.

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 and naming and claiming the social economy.

Look Widely for Inspiration & Ideas

Neamtan points out that 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.

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