Co-operative inclusion, we CAN be all things to all people: Four steps you can take to kickstart a more inclusive co-operative environment
6 min readJan 19, 2022


Photo credit: Jamii Esplanade Community Mural

Submitted by: Sarasvati Maharajh, Canadian Credit Union Association

Co-operatives are incredible tools for socio-economic change, but are not being used to their full potential in Canada — yet. And while there is no doubt that we are using the best business model to be successful, when it comes to inclusion in our co-operative system, it can be a challenge to understand, navigate, measure and most importantly, act upon.

Each of the co-operative sectors that I have served in, including housing, daycare, and financial services, are all a part of a larger co-operative system. For those that are new to co-operatives — or may have only been exposed to one type of co-operative business or sector — each co-operative is based on a business model that at its core, works off the same seven co-operative principles* with a goal of empowering community development and sustainability.

Each co-operative business serves a community need that includes, but is not limited to, access to safe and affordable daycare, housing, food, pharmaceuticals, energy, and financial services, to name a few. A version of the model can be applied to any type of business you can really think of! Each co-operative business is also owned by and serves its members, which can be based on anything from geographic location to ethnic origin, industry, marginalized demographics, like-minded interest groups, etc.

Most co-operative businesses on their own are inherently exclusive — i.e., people need to become a member based on the qualifying criteria to join. Each co-operative business as part of the greater co-operative system, however, creates a holistic environment that is inclusive. For example, in the housing sector, you may find housing co-ops that are built for housing single parents, for those that work in the culinary field, for those that make under a certain threshold of income, and others that are open for all. Individually, they are exclusively serving one community demographic, but together (in its ideal state), they are inclusively serving all.

When it comes to inclusion as an individual business therefore, as part of the sector and as part of the larger co-operative system, they are not currently “all things to all people” — but they certainly can be.

Here is an outline of some of the actions you can take starting today, to expand on and foster a more inclusive co-operative environment. I encourage you to try these on your own first, then get a partner or even a group together to discuss and share your ideas.

First, start thinking about and writing down what part do each of you individually play as a member, as an employee, and as a human being, in cultivating an environment of inclusivity? You may also want to consider what steps you are taking to learn and unlearn what you need to support your unique communities. (**See the end of the article for some learning options if you get stuck, or would like to further expand on your current list.)

Second, write down what powers of influence you have in your role to affect inclusive change? Who are the other key powers of influence? For example: do you have the authority to write and/or edit policies? Do you have the influencing power to get a group together to form an Employee Resource Group (ERG)? Are you in charge of facilities that could be adapted to include people with varying abilities? Are you a hiring manager that can seek candidates from non-traditional search avenues?

You need to make sure your co-operative space is authentically open and safe to attract and retain people from marginalized demographics. Everyone can influence change somewhere.

Third, write out who your co-operative is serving, how are you serving them and who is being left out? This is going to be a particularly hard part of the reflection dynamic and may require an inclusion audit.

This exercise outcome is also going to look different to every co-operative business. For example, according to stats Canada 2016 census data, visible minorities in the Toronto area are a far greater percentage (52%) than those in the Sault St. Marie region (2.6%), so it would be unrealistic to expect a majority board of visible minorities in that region. What co-operatives in that region may focus on is using 2SLGBTQ+ inclusive language, how Indigenous communities are being served, and how the policies and practices of the co-op business serve people with varying physical and mental abilities, for example.

This is not to suggest that we use this exercise to purposefully exclude a group that may not be dominant in any given region. It is meant to bring awareness to what your co-op is doing and what it can be doing better, to both serve and represent the demographics in your respective areas, and then to act on it. A fair warning: do not only rely on data available in census to make changes but use it as a tool. I can not stress enough how consistent education, consultations with members of the communities you serve and wish to serve, are going to give you a much broader and knowledge rich perspective on how best to serve and hire them. When you consult with any marginalized group, make sure they are compensated for the work, and act on it in a timely manor.

Fourth and finally, write out how your co-operative fits into the larger co-operative sector, and then the larger co-operative system? What gap are you filling? What gaps are your peers filling? Who is still being excluded? How can you include those identified as being left out? And how are you keeping the government accountable?

Remember, knowledge is power. If you know who your peers are serving, and which co-ops are available to fit the needs you are most challenged with, it can save you from not only not having to reinvent any wheels, but you will also be better equipped to work together to support each-other and fill those gaps of exclusion. Reach out to your peers at the Ontario Co-operative Association, the Canadian Credit Union Association , your local Centrals, and Co-operatives and mutuals Canada to help you with compiling some of this data.

Although each co-operative is an individual business, they are part of something bigger than itself, and if each organize, mobilize, and act on what is learned, they will become all things to all people.

The 8th co-operative principle up for consideration and already adopted by some co-operatives is “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

**Some courses for consideration being offered via Cusource® Education — Canadian Credit Union Association (

· 4 Seasons of Reconciliation, Indigenous Awareness (In partnership with First Nations University of Canada)

· Workplace DEI series DEI Video Intro

· Understanding DEI, Decisions and Bias for Directors

About the contributor:

Sarasvati (Sara) Maharajh, is a national and international award-winning second-generation co-operative advocate and credit union sector employee. She has held a variety of positions serving members from the front line to board levels in the credit union, co-operative daycare, and co-operative housing sectors respectively.

Sara currently serves credit unions as a Business Relationship Manager with Cusource®, the employee and director learning and development department of the Canadian Credit Union Association (CCUA). She is also serving the international credit union sector as part of the World Young Credit Union Professional (WYCUP) affiliate council and is the President of her housing co-op board and Vice-Chair of the Credit Union Leaders Association in Ontario. View her full professional bio on LinkedIn.



Our vision is an Ontario where co-operatives and credit unions contribute to the sustainable growth and development of our communities.