Every small town has challenges. But they also often have what they need to create their own solutions. 

 In the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to people across western Canada about how innovative small towns can be when they want to make things better.

I’ve been to a small town in northern Alberta that had never had a childcare facility. Finally fed up, a group of parents got together and created their own daycare that they own and govern themselves. 

I’ve spoken to the mayor of a small Manitoba community that wanted to have the fastest internet speeds possible. The school division and municipality teamed up to create a local Internet Service Provider, and now they have better broadband than most cities. I’ve seen farmers create their own markets, concerned residents build their own seniors’ homes, and people pool their money to invest in local business start-ups.

What do all these rural groups of people have in common? Well, they all decided to meet a challenge head-on, together — and they all did it by starting co-operatives.  

I know Prairie Post readers are familiar with co-operatives. You know about Co-op grocery stores and gas stations, and probably have one nearby. Though these Co-ops are amazing, they aren’t the ones I’m talking about. Because a “co-operative” is just a way for a group of people to do business together, and really any business can be a co-op.  

And so when rural people see an opportunity to create a great service that would benefit their town — and they know no one else is coming to do it for them — they can start a co-op and do it themselves. 

Lana Cowling-Mason is General Manager of Community Futures West Interlake in Manitoba, where a local group formed an investment co-op to pool funds and build seniors’ housing. Their approach was to assess what their region needed, and what assets it already had to make it happen. 

“Just like anything else in economic development, it’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” Cowling-Mason said of building a co-op. “What makes sense for one region may not be the exact same fit for another. …People need to look at the option and see what might fit with what they’re doing.” 

The group’s approach was to look at what people in the area could manage – and what would appeal to them – to build their strategy. There might not be many people with deep pockets — but the group is confident their area has people with a little money to invest, and a big interest in their area thriving. 

“We don’t expect people to go empty their savings account and put $100,000 investments in here. What we’re asking is to find 1,000 people who have $1,000,” Cowling-Mason said. “We’re just asking, ‘Would you take a chance on putting a little bit of money into our region with the hopes of levering good things to happen here?’.”

When identifying solutions to local issues, rural leaders can learn from the intrepid Manitobans, and take stock of their hometown advantages. They should understand what makes them different, better, and lean into it. And they can make their vision a reality by using the co-op model to get it going.

So ask yourself: what could our town use that would make life better for the people here? Or what would it take to make it an attractive place where people want to move? Then look around and see what people, assets, and resources you already have that could help make it a reality. 

“If you’re going to sit back and wait on someone to solve the needs of the community, then we’re going to be waiting a long time,” Cowling-Mason said. “If you’re not prepared to invest in yourself, then why the heck would anybody else?”

Aasa Marshall is a former Prairie Post reporter and is now the Communications Lead for the non-profit organization Co-operatives First. If you want to learn about how to use a co-op to capitalize on your hometown advantage, you can contact her at aasa@cooperativesfirst.com.

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