Cooperative Roots – The Antigonish Movement

Antigonish is a small town in northeastern Nova Scotia, where in the early 1900s the working people were in a vicious cycle of poverty. They worked hard fishing, farming or mining but realized little profit from their efforts. Dr. Moses Coady, Rev. Jimmy Tompkins and other clergy working with the St. Francis Xavier University’s Department of Extension embarked on a daunting task to, “help the people to build greater and better democratic institutions than we have ever had before” (Masters of their Own Destiny, Moses Coady, 1939) To accomplish this lofty goal, they taught an age-old form of doing business – cooperation.

The leaders of the Antigonish Movement, as it came to be called, believed that education was the first step in the transformation they envisioned. They started hundreds of study groups in the Maritime Provinces, teaching philosophy, economics, basic principles of democracy and business. Leaders emerged from these groups with business management and marketing skills and they joined with others in forming new cooperative businesses. Tentative at first, the fledgling cooperatives gained traction as they experienced success. Profits remained in the hands of cooperative members and incomes increased.    

The cooperative business model proved to be very adaptable and by the late 1930s there were coops throughout Eastern Canada. They owned lobster processing plants, sawmills, retail stores, and fish canneries. They made handcrafts, built boats, sold farm products and built houses. Credit unions had a vital role, often lending startup capital to the new ventures. The cooperative business model spread across Canada changing and adapting as circumstances required.

Dr. Coady’s high ethical standards and sound business skills continue to inspire cooperatives worldwide. His emphasis on education, his attitude of self-reliance and belief in democracy are still guiding principles. Modern cooperatives, including Battle River Power Coop, owe a lot to the Antigonish Movement.

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