Co-operatives and co-operation were forces in Saskatchewan well before the formation of the Province in 1905. For thousands of years, Aboriginal and indigenous peoples have organized collaborative societies and worked together. In many ways, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people were this continent’s first co-operators.
Collaboration and co-operation were evident and essential in both the pre-contact knowledge and relationships of Aboriginal peoples in hunting and trade, and in the post-contact collaboration and settler dependence on Aboriginal knowledge, transportation and technologies in the fur trade, for example. All people that have lived in Saskatchewan have found it necessary to co-operate; to cope with the challenges of the large amounts of land and distance, the dramatic range of weather and the demands on resources and trade. Aboriginal peoples, in particular, were and continue to be deeply invested in collective practices and living in balance with all of our relations in the natural world.
In 1895, a group of dairy farmers in the settlement of Saltcoats formed the Province’s first co-operative butter creamery. The first co-operative to register in the newly incorporated Province of Saskatchewan was the Grain Growers’ Grain Company in 1906. 1905 to 1929 saw such a sharp increase in co-operative organization across the province that many consider this time to be the “pool marketing phase” of Saskatchewan’s co-operative development. During this time many of the province’s farmers began “pooling” their resources and marketing their products as a group instead of as individual farms, such as through the formation of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 1923-24. There were also many buying clubs formed during this period, leading to the formation of retail co-op stores.
In 1910, the Jewish Colonization Association established the first Credit Union in Western Canada in Wapella, Saskatchewan. In 1912 a farmer group concerned about the damaging potential of the unpredictable weather formed a co-operative to supply crop hail insurance. Many early co-operatives in Saskatchewan were inspired and promoted by the Territorial Grain Growers Association, and later, by the Women’s Grain Growers Association, which was incorporated in 1913. These organizations included prominent co-operative leaders, such as Violet McNaughton, of Harris. The first General Co-operative Associations Act was passed by the Provincial government in 1914. 1928 was the beginning of one-day co-op schools, the framework for the Saskatchewan Co-operative Youth Program, and was also the year that the retail co-op stores worked together to form a wholesale co-operative, Federated Co-operatives Limited.
Consumers’ Co-operative Refinery, now owned by Saskatchewan Federated Co-operatives Ltd., was established by farmers in Regina in 1935. The first officially chartered Credit Union, the Regina Hebrew Savings & Credit Union was formed in Regina in 1937.
Métis leaders James Brady and Malcolm Norris were involved in co-operatives in the North of the province and influential in the formation and early years of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) political party in the 1930s. Despite these leaders’ involvement in the CCF, there were tensions between the colonial views of the Métis that the CCF government perpetuated and how the Métis viewed their own communities.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Métis, First Nations and Aboriginal co-ops were active throughout Northern Saskatchewan, including fishing, fur and trapping, trading, wood products, farm co-operatives and even a credit union. The Co-operators is established in 1945, when a group of Saskatchewan farmers pool their resources to start an insurance co-operative. The Co-operative Trust Company of Canada, which would later become Concentra Financial, was formed in 1952 to meet the corporate financial needs of credit unions and co-operative members in Saskatchewan.
During the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were several other significant innovations with the co-operative sector. The Universal Medicare program in Saskatchewan was launched in 1962. As a result of the Medicare program, the first co-op community health clinic was opened in Saskatoon the same year, with other clinics opened around the province. Access Communications, a Regina based broadcast communications co-operative, was incorporated under the Co-operative Association Act of Saskatchewan in 1974. The Centre for the Study of Co-operatives was established in 1984 as an interdisciplinary teaching and research institute at the University of Saskatchewan.
In 1977, Sherwood Credit Union in Regina introduced the world’s first Automated Teller Machine (ATM). The first debit card was piloted in the Swift Current area in 1985. Credit unions have been and continue to be instrumental in creating a successful business climate for the province, with almost half the population of the province having a credit union account (over 500,000 memberships).
From health care to funeral homes, poverty reduction to credit unions, the co-operative model is still thriving and innovating, in Saskatchewan and around the world. Co-operatives are being used as a means to revitalize cultural traditions, engage youth, reconnect the generations, contribute to environmental sustainability and socio-cultural development within Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal social economies, operating in rural, urban and remote communities throughout the province.
Saskatchewan has over 1,200 non-financial and financial co-operatives operating in virtually every economic and social sector. First Nations and Métis communities are developing marketing, development and employment co-operatives, financial co-operatives and other co-operative and collaborative, unique solutions to meet their communities’ needs. As long as people choose to work together, co-operatives will continue to be a successful model for community and economic development for many years to come and in many communities.
This co-operative history article is an updated (2015) version of a document originally created by Saskatchewan Co-operative Association with the assistance of The Saskatchewan Agriculture Hall of Fame, SaskCentral, Saskatchewan Regional Economic and Co-operative Development, The Community Action Co-operative, The Saskatoon Community Clinic, The Co-operators, The Canadian Wheat Board and Saskatchewan Industry and Resources. Additional contributions and information are greatly appreciated and included from Dr. Brett Fairbairn, Dr. Isobel M. Findlay, Glenbowmuseum.org, metismuseum.ca, and the Dizaines for Batoche Development Co-operative Limited.