Little Giants

Sharing the load: Co-operative movement fosters self-sufficient mentality, sustains island economy during tough times

Like many small towns in northern New Brunswick, the tiny, island-bound community of Lamèque (population: 1,423) has seen both good times and bad. When the fishing is good, it’s very good. When the summers are warm and dry, the peat moss industry thrives. But when these economic engines sputter, as they sometimes do, life can get pretty bleak, indeed.

Or it would without the powerful influence the area’s co-operative movement exerts on local attitudes and opportunities. “Here, it’s in the blood,” says Lisette Cormier Noël, the community’s director of cultural and tourism development. “The drive is so strong, it’s something that’s drilled into your head. It’s an understanding that if we don’t participate, if we don’t work together, if we don’t encourage our mutual growth and development, we’re simply not going to survive.”

In fact, far from petering out, the town’s amenities have kept pace with its ambitions. According to its official website, “The town has its own waterworks system, fire department and volunteer firefighters, RCMP office, parks and leisure commission, playgrounds for kids, minor baseball field, senior baseball field with lights, 1,500-seat arena, winter activity centre with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails, tennis courts and a camping site located in Petite-Lamèque.”

Meanwhile, the community boasts two senior citizens homes as well as a hospital and community health centre, school, library, pharmacy and many other businesses. The town hall hosts a community hall with a stage and a music room.

At the heart of this lies a network of integrated co-ops that Noel insists continue to make Lamèque, despite its diminutive size and relative remoteness, “a happening place.” These include institutions for consumers (Société coopérative de Lamèque); the fishing industry (Association coopérative des pêcheurs de l’Île); banking (Caisse populaire des Îles); housing (Habitat des pionniers); and renewable energy/wind farm (Coopérative d’énergie renouvelable).

In the dry language of economic development, these co-ops pool the residents’ cash resources and invest in civic and business projects. But in the language of the human heart, they do much more than this.

“The founding trait of the co-op movement when it was founded here in 1937 was knowing that we were stronger coming together than being separate,” Noël explains. “Everybody here is part of a certain co-op. Many older people are part of many. We are owners. Participation breeds a big sense of empowerment and optimism, and this spills into other things in the community. It gives us the drive to go out and get things done.”

One of those “things” is the Lamèque International Baroque Music Festival, which, according to its website “grew from the seed of a harpsichord recital in 1971. By 1975 it was firmly rooted, staging its first concert in July 1976. Founded by harpsichordist Mathieu Duguay, it has attracted thousands of music lovers to the picturesque island, delighting them with early music performed in the exceptional acoustics of the colourful Sainte-Cécile church in Petite-Rivière-de-l’Île.”

The link between Baroque music and the co-op movement may seem tenuous, at best. But not if you come from Lamèque, where everything that can happen usually does when people keep pulling in the same direction, regardless of the ups and downs that life dispenses. – Alec Bruce

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