Saturday, April 9, 2011

Best of Women: Co-operation Makes It Happen

Achievement in Economics: Sara Oliver and Sara Golling
Sara Oliver and Sara Golling aren't household names, but over the last forty years, they've influenced scores of Canadians and helped outfit thousands of mountaineers, college kids, weekend warriors, and adorable little kids. As part of the founding members of Mountain Equipment Co-op (celebrating 40 years in business this year, what what?), they've brought a different model of shopping to the Canadian family, and in the process, helped shape who we are as consumers.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC for short, and the contention over whether it's "Em Eee Cee" or "Meck" has divided families and ruined friendships) was originally envisioned as a knock-off of REI, an American outdoor equipment provider. According to the ridiculously endearing cartoon on their website, MEC was designed to serve the 1970s Vancouver hippies: the cartoon features bebraided young ladies and scraggly-bearded young men, asking, "Hey, why don't we start a co-op just like REI?" Forty years later, MEC has come into its own. Membership exceeds 3 million (in a country with 30 million residents, that's damned impressive), they made more than a quarter-billion dollars last year, and they've built eco-friendly outposts from coast to coast. They're also a super-fun way to kill a couple hours on a weekend; go in, get some technical clothes (dress shirts that dry really fast! Awesome for both mountain biking and nervous interactions with your boss!), try on sunglasses, maybe watch some of the doofs on the climbing wall, and grab a new carabiner for you keys. Sweet!

I rarely write about co-ops for the same reasons I don't write about my family or mention my work on this site: I don't want to shit where I eat. I've lived in a student housing co-op for the past seven years, and being a member has deeply influenced the way I feel about myself as a person. Co-ops are notable because they give members democratic control over their organization, a "perk" lacking in most other business models. They empower members to spend the co-op's money in ways that best suit them. My housing co-op, for example, has a full-time maintenance crew; free laundry for the membership; dining halls and house food plans; and front porches and backyards in the heart of downtown Toronto.

There are lots of different types of co-ops: some, like MEC, are consumer co-ops who negotiate on a member's behalf with suppliers and give more bang for your buying buck. Worker co-ops allow employees of a company to direct its growth, instead of a top-down/boss-only approach. Naomi Klein gives worker co-ops a lot of love in her book The Shock Doctrine: apparently, after a lot of political and economic tumult, worker co-ops have a balm-like effect on economies. It was under the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation's rule in Saskatchewan in the '40s that the Canadian health care system took its first form. Oh, and it's my secret dream to run a restaurant co-op like The Sleepless Goat in Kingston. Secret! Shh!

I know my co-op friends might get starry-eyed for this post while the rest of the world yawns and scratches itself. I get mushy about co-ops because I think they work. So many folks feel powerless and used up by the end of the day. When I think about the jobs I've had, the ones where I worked hardest and felt best about myself have been the ones where I feel proud of what I do. Even if it's waiting tables, if my fellow employees and my bosses and I are all on the same team, it's a good job. I've watched friends endure crappy living arrangements - "roommate" means you bear the brunt of dealing with the issue, including the knowledge that you helped select the source of your misery. But co-ops, with their open membership policies, absolve you of that. Plus, almost every medium to large co-op I've heard of has someone on staff who helps wrangle the inter-member conflict.

In any case, I would argue that most Canadians have some contact with a co-op. Credit unions are wildly popular in Quebec, and the farming industry still has a number of co-operatives, ranging in size from smallish to gargantuan. MEC helped make co-ops part of Canada's economic landscape. And co-ops are part of a thriving democracy - along with unions, they give people the power to govern themselves where they live, buy, work and play. So thanks, MEC. Thanks, Oliver and Golling. Yours in co-operation!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Best of Women: Minn Timi Mun Koma!

Achievement in Politics: Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir
This winter, I developed a surprising crush on the Nordic countries. Their European sensibilities, combined with their music scene and a Globe profile on Danish cuisine, left me hungry to visit the Northern countries - snack on their home-made Poptarts, swim in their icy waters, drink their strange brew, and flirt with their beautiful women.

When I started this series, I got an email from a buddy who alerted me to Iceland's Prime Minister, a dame by the name of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. He was like, "She's got an impressive resume!" which is true. She's also openly gay, and as such, is the first queer head of state.

Canada's female political leadership leaves much to be desired. We had Kim Campbell, the first woman PM and the person who ruined the Conservative party for years to come. We have Elizabeth May, who is the head of the Green Party - for some reason, I get the sense that May is the kind of person who gets snorted about around the water cooler in the Ignatieff war room. May's persistent me-too attitude regarding her party's place in the Canadian political pecking order is, frankly, to me, a little off-putting. I like the Green party's stance on a lot of issues (hello, I'm a pinko with a bike, of course I dig a party that posits sustainability as a principle), but May's style runs a little high on the ick-scale. In any case, this ain't about me - what I am saying is that Canadian women have precious few role models to look up to. Olivia Chow, maybe the most prominent female member of parliament, is best known for her marriage to Jack Layton, the leader of the NDP and proud owner of a very fine mustache.

(Full disclosure/weird story: I briefly dated a guy who worked at city hall, and I was invited to Jack Layton's house for their annual Christmas party. I accidentally dressed myself up like a prostitute [high leather boots and fishnets], ate 90% of their cheese platter out of sheer nervousness, and watched Jack sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" on their home karaoke machine. It was the zenith and the nadir of my life so far.)

IN ANY CASE. What I'm saying is that it's hard out there for a pimp, if you replace "pimp" with "politician/vagina owner." Dude politicos are free to wander in and out of office, never being noted for anything unless they get caught with underage hookers, are half-black, or once starred as Danny Devito's brother. Those are literally, like, the only reasons male politicians get talked about. Oh, and Rob Ford's a fatty.

But women are still being all "hmmm"ed over. Sarah Palin was a punchline even as she garnered support across the county. Condoleezza Rice got column inches about her shoes, a feat hitherto unmatched by male politicians. And in Canada, if the female political leadership were a landscape, it would be a tundra. This is embarrassing. In a country that's chill with gay marriage and has stopped caring about teenagers toking up in public, we can't get a female leader who can, you know, lead.

So it's no wonder I had to turn abroad to get some womanly leadership. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the lady who runs Iceland, is sort of fascinating. Her Wikipedia photo makes her look like a smart-girl private detective in some screwball HBO comedy, all big lapels and red lips, but she's Iceland's longest-serving member of the Althing (seriously, since 1978! This woman has a literal lifetime's worth of experience), and when she lost her bid for party leadership in 1994, she actually pounded her fists and said, "Minn timi mun koma!" This becomes far more stirring when translated into a language I speak: "My time will come!" Since Icelanders are awesome, this became an iconic phrase.

It's a fact that women get elected less frequently, serve on fewer boards, and aren't as politically powerful as their male counterparts. I hope that my generation changes this, that women who are now in their teens and twenties can look forward to the day that they're elected to city council, to parliament hill, to 24 Sussex Drive. When inclusion in national debates is a given, not a tooth-and-nail battle. When the commentary isn't about what we wear and who we're married to, but what we say and how we lead. Because our time is coming, but I don't know how soon.