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​100-year-old retiree promotes co-operative understanding, participation


When the historic co-operative movement swept across western Canada in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Harold Chapman was there to witness the unfolding of an evolution.

In a presentation to CSS employees, the 100-year-old CSS retiree explained what it was like in those early days when the west was still undergoing settlement and emphasized the value co-operatives brought to burgeoning rural communities that would otherwise not have the services the co-ops provided.

“Being 100 years old and having some memories, I can remember my father shoveling grain into a box car in 1924 and 1925, because the local elevator wouldn’t take the grain,” Harold recalls.

Likened to Harold’s father, many of the people who helped settle western Canada experienced similar difficulties, he added, whether it was marketing their products, or getting loans and services.

“The folks at that time knew why they were needing a co-op organization,” he said. “They had problems, and they were prepared to work together to solve those problems.”

Many of the farm leaders at that time came from England and had experienced the origin of the co-operative movement of the Rochdale Pioneers during the 1800s, Harold explained. They were familiar with the co-op model – the same model that we’re familiar with today – and used the philosophy to create member-based organizations that put control in the hands of the people who made use of those organizations.

“So when they started running into problems, the co-operative method was one that they were prepared to promote at that time,” Harold said. “Their need at that time as they saw it was to have an organization that was controlled by the members. One member, one vote. And where any surplus was distributed as a patronage refund to the people that had done business with the organization. That was the origin back in those days and development of the co-operative principles.”

This mentality led to the development of organizations like the CSS Pension Plan, formed by advocates of the co-operative movement in 1939. However, Harold added that this philosophy and overall understanding of the co-op model is gradually fading over generations. 

Co-operative education used to be part and parcel of the Saskatchewan education system between the 1920s and 1960s, says Harold who was director of the Co-operative Institute, predecessor of the Western Co-operative College which developed the training programs for use in the school systems. The programs were eventually removed from the education curriculum in 1982. Citing a Danish co-operator, Harold notes that education is often a key component to continued understanding of a people’s organization.

“By the time the third generation comes along, they have no idea what this co-operative is about,” he said. “In those early days, every product that was raised in Saskatchewan was marketed through organizations that the farmers built as co-operative organizations. This required the understanding and support of these people for the organizations to develop and function successfully.”

Co-operative understanding and CSS

Harold explained that many western Canadian marketing co-ops were members of the Western Co-operative College during his working years – and most no longer exist.

However, this is not the case for all co-operatives and credit unions, many which are strong today, but Harold notes that the competition is also strong. He says member participation and understanding are key to strong and healthy co-ops, like the CSS Pension Plan, which Harold has been a member of since 1955.

During his presentation, he encouraged CSS staff to be co-operative champions and further promote the co-operative philosophy through member education. 

“We require strong co-ops for organizations like the Pension Plan, and the question further perhaps is how are you folks handling it in terms of providing leadership in co-op education as part of your program?”

While the Plan’s governance structure is typical in the co-operative sector, it is unique in the pension sector in terms of members having a voice and vote to influence and shape the direction of the Plan. It is a facet the Plan is working to promote further to members through more accessible online communications and by strengthening relationships with participating employers.

Similarly, he encourages CSS members today to recognize the importance of the Pension Plan and the use that they will be able to make of it when they retire. In his own experience, he said the Plan has provided a major source of income ever since he retired from his position of member relations director for Federated Co-operatives Limited in 1982.*

“I think it’s important that members today understand it, and they be prepared to ask questions, make comments and make suggestions as members of the Plan,” he said. “It’s part of the co-operative principles of helping to own and control a service that is significant for them. Here is a Plan that will take an influence, but the only way members can influence it is if they understand it and if they participate in it.”

*Keep in mind that every member’s story is different, and that past performance does not guarantee future results.