There are many records of co-operatives that began as small grassroots organizations in Western Europe, North America and Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, it is the Rochdale Pioneers that are generally regarded as the prototype of the modern co-operative society and the founders of the Co-operative Movement in 1844. 

In 1844 a group of 28 artisans working in the cotton mills in the town of Rochdale, in the north of England, established the first modern co-operative business - the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. The weavers faced miserable working conditions and low wages, and they could not afford the high prices of food and household goods. They decided that by pooling their scarce resources and working together they could access basic goods at a lower price. Initially, there were only four items for sale: flour, oatmeal, sugar and butter.

The Pioneers decided it was time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness and respect, that they should be able to share in the profits that their custom contributed to and that they should have a democratic right to have a say in the business. Every customer of the shop became a member and so had a true stake in the business. At first the co-op was open for only two nights a week, but within three months, business had grown so much that it was open five days a week. The seminal Rochdale shop ceased operation many years ago. The co-operative merged with other co-ops into a greater union and the original site is now a museum.

The Rochdale Pioneer Society was by no means the first of its kind. The Fenwick Weavers’ Association in Scotland dated back to 1769, and is generally considered the first co-operative ever created. Before that, European artists’ guilds of the early Renaissance approximated co-operatives and the ancient Chinese had co-operatively organized memorial societies. The reason why the Rochdale Pioneers were so distinctive was their success.

The founders carefully studied past attempts and constructed a set of rules, which came to be known as the Rochdale Principles. These principles were a turning point in economic democracy, and formed the basis for the growing co-operative movement worldwide. Today, there are thousands of co-operatives all over the world with over 600 million members, all of which subscribe to what are now known as the seven International Principles of Co-operation. The principles that underpinned co-operatives' way of doing business are still accepted today as the foundations upon which all co-operatives operate. These principles have been revised and updated, but remain essentially the same as those practiced by the Pioneers in 1844.

An independently formulated co-operative model developed in Germany by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Franz Hermann Schultz-Delitsch. Raiffeisen and Schultz-Delitsch originally formed credit unions in 1862. Since then, the model has grown into other sectors and inspired the growth of financial co-operatives across the world.

Today, the co-operative sector is estimated to have around 1 billion members. Co-operatives employ, directly or indirectly, 250 million people around the world. The world's top 300 co-operatives alone have an estimated global turnover of 2.53 trillion USD! (2016 World Co-operative Monitor).

The Origins of the Canadian Co-operative Movement

The first co-operatives to achieve stability in English Canada around the turn of the 20th century were farmers' marketing and purchasing societies. They were built out of an urgent need and the seed of co-operation planted during the previous century. These societies, along with the movement in general, gained a large following in the new Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. Soon afterwards, dairy farmers established co-operative creameries. By 1900, there were over 1,200 creameries scattered across Canada, primarily in Ontario and Quebec. The same year laid the foundation for the credit union movements across North America, when Alphonse Desjardins established a caisse populaire (a financial services co-operative) in Lévis, Quebec.

As early as 1887 the Manitoba government passed legislation to allow settlers from Ontario to build their own co-operative creameries. The efforts of co-operators between 1907 and 1911 resulted in a stable co-operative farm movement in the Prairies. In fact, farmers in all regions participated in the development of the co-operative movement, but it was the Prairie grain growers who first made co-operative action work on a large scale.

In many ways it is the strength of and depth of the co-operative movement in rural Canada that ensured the development and continuity of other co-operative sectors of the Canadian economy. The groundwork laid by the agricultural co-operative movement blazed the trail for all of the other types of co-operatives in Canada. Today, you can find co-operatives ranging in size from 3 members to millions, and operating in nearly every sector.

The Origins of the Ontario Co-operative Movement

People in Ontario have been participating in co-operatives for more than 150 years. Traditionally, co-operatives flourished particularly in the agriculture sector, where they were a powerful marketing and business supply tool helping farmers compete with powerful suppliers and processors. 

The oldest co-operatives in the province were both created in 1913 and still exist today! On September 12, 1913 four prominent Niagara Peninsula fruit growers met at the home of Mr. Alonzo H. Culp to discuss the formation of a co-operative fruit company, which today is known as the Vineland Growers Co-operativeThe OAC Students' Co-op was created on November 26, 1913 by seven students from Guelph and Wellington County. Its main purpose was to provide a cost-effective and structured business on-campus that would sell students their textbooks and supplies. As the only other bookstore was downtown, the co-operative provided a valuable service. The board of directors, elected from the student community and co-op alumni, ensured the co-operative's continued success from year to year. Today, it is known as the Guelph Campus Co-op.




Another fun fact: From the early 20th century, co-operative leaders in Ontario were provincial and national leaders. Ernest Charles Drury, a founder of the Ontario agricultural co-operative movement was our Premier, and Agnes Macphail, an early director of that same movement, was Canada's first female Member of Parliament!