Vanessa Hammond

The call for more co-operations

Proponent Vanessa Hammond sees an abundance of opportunities for more co-ops on Haida Gwaii.

Vanessa Hammond knows co-ops can do plenty of good, but she started with them to make pocket money.

After India, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Hammond grew up in county Tyrone — a part of northern Ireland that was quite poor in the post-war 1950s.

Her only way to make pocket change was to join a local farmers’ co-op.

“My dad said if you want money, you’d better get those hens laying some eggs,” she said.

Today, after a decades-long career helping co-ops in over 20 countries — a career that included founding the Healthcare Co-Op Federation of Canada — Hammond says wherever they are and whatever they do, co-ops work best when a group of people decide they have to fix a problem themselves.

“Each one is different, but it’s always a bunch of people who are ticked off that something isn’t being done, or isn’t being done right in their community,” she said.

On Feb. 1, Hammond will give a talk all about co-ops as part of the Masset Lectures series.

Although she now lives in Victoria, Hammond has worked on Haida Gwaii with Northern Savings Credit Union and is now spending seven weeks in Skidegate, where she is filling in for a friend who is a minister at Skidegate United Church.

Here on Haida Gwaii, Hammond said besides the credit union and Delmas Co-op grocery stores, there may be opportunities for an agricultural co-op, or a housing co-op, or a co-op small-scale wellness and health practitioners.

“It’s really fortunate on Haida Gwaii that there is Community Futures, MIEDS, the credit union — lots of people who can help,” she said, referring to the Misty Isles Economic Development Society.

Hammond started her life in Canada by becoming a teacher in Toronto, but she quit the year her principal decided Grade 7 and 8 students should only learn long division if they want to.

Almost by accident, Hammond wound up starting a small company that could sell medical electronics from Canada to Cuba — something her ex-husband’s company had tried to do before it was blocked by a related U.S. firm.

After that first order, two men from Hitachi flew from Japan to surprise her at home.

“They decided to visit this little company they’d never heard of,” said Hammond, smiling. “There I was in my apartment in Don Mills with two kids and Salvation Army furniture.”

Over tea, the men approved Hammond’s business plan, but said she was making too little profit — they dropped their price so she could open a proper office.

“They were perfect,” she said.

Soon, Hammond was exporting small orders to other countries — word processors for Haiti, safety equipment to fishermen in Barbados.

It was in Barbados where Hammond found herself in the middle of an argument between members of a small-scale fishermen’s co-op. Having joined a few co-ops in Toronto as well as the one in Ireland, Hammond offered to help.

“They went off and got a couple bottles of rum, and we sat down and talked about consensus decision-making,” she said, laughing.

Once it was sorted, the men asked Hammond to visit nearby fishermen’s co-ops in St. Lucia and St. Vincent and do the same thing.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Hammond worked with many small co-ops and small, informal businesses across the Caribbean and Latin America, including a memorable time with the Anonymous Women Poets Co-op in Guyana, which was then publishing political poems in the tense years after the Jonestown Massacre.

“There was no career plan in any of this,” she said. “It just kind of happened.”

Back in Canada, Hammond has seen co-ops handle everything from rural ambulance service outside St. John’s, Newfoundland, to offering employment support for people in Thunder Bay.

At her talk on Feb. 1, Hammond will take questions and share some of the co-op lessons she learned along the way.

The Feb. 1 Masset Lecture runs from 7 to 9 p.m. at Northwest Community College in Masset.

For more about upcoming talks in the Masset Lecture series, join the Masset Lecture group on Facebook.