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Editorial: Grieving the death of a co-op

Partial screenshot from the MEC website

Many readers know that ‘way back in 1971, I was one of the six official signatories to the founding documents of Mountain Equipment Co-operative, a (formerly) member-owned retail consumer co-op. And many readers will know by now that it has been placed under creditor protection, and that its assets are being, or have been, sold to an American investment firm.

This morning the ether from one end of this country to the other has been swarming  with expressions of dismay and grief and feelings of betrayal, including my own, by e-mail, on Facebook, and no doubt on other social media platforms.  And I have just been interviewed for CBC’s radio program “As it Happens,” to air this evening (September 15, 2020).  Of course I felt incoherent, too.

It isn’t just that members have lost a co-op that many of us valued.  Canada has lost an iconic member-owned retailer that was respected internationally.

Many of us cannot understand how the directors of a co-op could let matters get to this stage without even informing the membership, and without appealing to the membership for help. Mountain Equipment Co-op was owned by its members – yet we didn’t know just how bad things were, and many of us hoped – not unreasonably, based on the information provided to us – that our co-op could survive this rough patch.  But no; all choice, all ownership, has been taken from us.  Without notice.

Many attribute the downfall of Mountain Equipment Co-op to the over-vetting of candidates for the board, gradually populating the board of directors --  and also senior management -- with people possessing MBAs and experience managing or directing “large, complex retail organizations” – all based on the standard capitalist model, which is really an anti-co-operative model. I agree that was a factor.

I’m sure there were many factors, all contributing, and magnifying each other. 

Let’s start with the seven co-operative principles.   The first one is open and voluntary membership.  MEC was OK on that. 

Let’s check the second principle:  Democratic member control.  Ooops, not doing so well on that one – it says, “Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions.”  Gradually, the MEC board had – with the consent of a majority the membership – removed control from the members.  One mechanism was to make it very difficult for members to propose special, or even ordinary, resolutions.  Another mechanism was to refuse to publish any alternative or opposing views when the board proposed a change in MEC’s Rules of Association – so nearly all members, having no other information or opinions to consider, voted in favour of whatever the board wanted, and the board wanted ALL the control without any of this troublesome input from members.

Third principle?  That’s member economic participation.  “Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative.”  Well, members have always contributed, but at this point we can't say we had any democratic control over the capital ofthe co-op.  We had no say at all over MEC’s recent fate.  None.  We didn't even have any meaningful information beforehand.

Now, reading the fourth principle makes my blood boil.  It’s a good one:  Autonomy and independence.   It was not followed. It reads, “Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members.  If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.”  Well, that certainly didn’t happen.

The fifth principle is education, training and information: co-ops are supposed to provide education and training for members, elected representatives and employees, and to inform the public about the nature and benefits of co-operation.  Recent boards seemed to think that was a waste of time, “valuable website space” and effort. Anyone who wanted information on co-operation from the MEC website had to dig for it; it was several clicks away.  One had to be truly determined to get to it –it wasn’t made obvious to anyone just visiting the site to buy a set of climbing skins.  Or a T-shirt.

There are many other factors we could mention – too many different products, too many “clearance” items, too many products that were not only not true to MEC’s roots but were betrayals of original MEC values, such as environmental responsibility – one category:  gear to facilitate air travel, like rolling suitcases. Yes, many people like to travel to “status” destinations to do their hiking, cycling, climbing – the Haute Route,  Mont Blanc, various treks and peaks in the Himalayas, and so on.  Is that sort of non-essential air travel something MEC should encourage?  Arguably, it is not; air travel is a significant contributor to the climate crisis and all the ills that go with it:  extinctions of species, more extreme weather events, longer and hotter droughts, more and bigger wildfires . . . all brought to us by burning fossil fuels. (Enjoying the smoke, everyone?)

But betraying MEC’s roots and going (essentially) bankrupt are not identical, and one does  not necessarily lead to the other.  Betraying the membership is a whole other question.  How could they do this, members – former members, now – have been asking.  How could they get away with not informing and consulting the membership – and selling our co-op out from under us without the membership’s approval?

Good question.  Perhaps someone will provide an answer, in due course.  But knowing the legal mechanism of  how it could be done will not change the fact that it was a betrayal, and should not have been done.