Westlock Terminals (Video)

It’s hard to over emphasize the importance of quality infrastructure for robust economic activity. In rural communities, it can be especially hard to keep and maintain the things needed to attract large businesses. Westlock Terminals is the amazing story of how this community rose to the occasion.

Brought to you by Co-operatives First.

Ukrainian Co-op (Video)

The Ukrainian Co-op has been creating a unique experience and welcoming space for over 80 years. Best known for their meats and imported goods, the store is more than simply a supermarket. Check out what makes this one of the longest running co-ops in Saskatchewan.

Brought to you by Co-operatives First.

Aboriginal Designers Co-op (VIDEO)

In the heartland of Turtle Island, a small group of Indigenous designers join in laughter, combine resources and support each other through a shared purpose. Celebrating three years running, this unique designer co-operative helps ensure their voices and cultures are heard and experienced throughout the world.

The Backroad Diaries is a Co-operatives First project.

River Select

At the end of
August, we had the chance to visit the Okanagan to spend some time with an
amazing Indigenous Co-op: River Select.

Smoke from the
August wildfires plaguing northern BC was evident in the Kelowna area during
our visit, but the natural beauty of BC wasn’t hidden by the haze. Our drive
into the Lower Fraser Valley was highlighted by corn fields, winding roads, and
lush green landscapes. The area is packed with the promise of good food and
good people.

Harrison Select

We were fortunate
to encounter both when we met with Dave Moore, Manager of River Select
Co-operative on the Sts’ailes First Nation near the Chehalis and Harrison
Rivers. Dave gave us a tour of the fish processing site operated by the
Sts’ailes and Scowlitz First Nations. This partnership, dubbed Harrison Select,
brings together fishers from both Nations to brand and market a product that is
harvested using traditional learnings. The logo for Harrison Select is the
Sasquatch walking alongside a salmon: the Sts’ailes First Nation recognize the
Sasquatch as the caretaker of the land, and the Scowlitz recognize the salmon
as their logo.

there were no Sasquatch sightings during our visit.)

Sisan and Kyle with the Harrison Select logo

Dave said many
First Nation communities that rely on the fishery have been concerned with
declining stocks and overharvest resulting from commercial activity over the
last 150 years. River Select was created in response to this destructive
practice. The co-op allows relatively small-scale First Nation-owned fisheries
to conduct sustainable harvest using sustainable methods while finding efficiencies
through co-operation. By working together, the eight members can maintain
feasibility allowing them to preserve their traditional fisheries.

“Our co-operative
came into being when it became clear that these small artisanal fisheries of
yesteryear, they can’t survive in today’s global economy because it’s all about
large, consistent volumes year-round,” said Dave. “…we designed a fisheries
co-operative that could provide the financing, the infrastructure, the
professionals in order to help do the kinds of things they couldn’t afford to
do as a single small enterprise, but could do collectively if they shared these

While the co-op
only employs four people directly, it fosters the livelihoods of hundreds of
Indigenous fishers across BC.

“We invest in
value-adding that fish so the community and the fishermen see more value from
their efforts,” Dave said.

Each Nation
maintains a storefront where they sell their own branded products that are
distributed by the co-op. This complements the online store and allows each
Nation to capitalize on tourists hungry for local salmon.

As a biologist who
has worked in the fishing industry for over 30 years Dave knows a thing or two,
so we had to ask: ‘How do you cook the perfect salmon?’ His favourite: Chinook
salmon, barbequed on a cedar plank.

With mouths
watering, we purchased some salmon jerky from the Sts’ailes store to satisfy
our craving on the drive home.

Okanagan Select and Osoyoos Lake

On our second day,
we met Howie Wright with Okanagan Nation Alliance, a representative of eight
Nations in the area and the owner of Okanagan Select. Howie gave us a tour of
Okanagan Select’s storefront, processing site, freezers, and dry storage areas.

After our tour of
the Westbank-based site, Howie asked if we could join him at the landing ground
on Osoyoos Lake where he had arranged for us to meet some local fishers. The
Backroad Diaries team is always up for a road trip, so we set off for Osoyoos.

If you’re
wondering how to get to Osoyoos Lake when heading south, Howie’s directions
were spot on:

  1. Turn
    left on road 22 off highway 97
  2. Turn
    right onto Black Sage Road by the old barns
  3. Turn
    left by the second set of houses where a toilet used to be
  4. Keep
    left until you reach the lake

When we arrived we
met Louie, the owner of Louie’s Extreme Fishing, who took us out on the lake to
meet some local fishers. With the smoke thickening, we were unable to
appreciate our mountainous surroundings, but that allowed us to focus on fishing.

We also met Reagan,
a local fish harvester. Using sonar technology, Reagan can detect a cluster of
fish, then cast out a net to surround the fish and pull them up. Once near the
surface, a packing boat (a smaller boat filled with totes) moves alongside the
fishing boat to receive the catch. The fish are then poured into the totes and
brought ashore.

Community Fishery

Louie told us that
that week the fish weren’t being harvested commercial purposes, but for the
community food fishery. The fish harvested on the day we visited would go to
Merritt, and fish from the following day would head to Vernon. Communities rely
on the fishery for more than just revenue: the co-op helps preserve a way of
life that has been practiced for thousands of years.

Limləmt, thank you, to Dave, Howie, Louie, and everyone else we met throughout the Okanagan for your hospitality and kindness.

Dauphin, Manitoba

For a small town, Dauphin has a lot going on. We arrive a few weeks too late for the massive annual country music festival that draws around 14,000 people to the area, but we did get there just in time to see the street fair that kicks off the Ukrainian Festival. It’s clear that this is a town where people work together to make things happen.

Parkland Industrial Hemp Producers

Keith shows us a variety of hemp developed by the co-op.

Our first co-op stop was the Parkland Industrial Hemp Producers Co-operative. Keith, the Associate Plant Breeder, and Clare, the office manager, have lined up interviews and tours of the area to give us a glimpse of how the crop and the co-op has had an impact on the region. After chatting in the office, we hop in Keith’s truck and head out into the countryside. We stop at co-op member Chris Federowich’s farm, where he tells us all about the equipment he uses to harvest his hemp crops (hemp is notoriously tough on machinery). He and Clare also chat about the role the co-op has played for local producers.

“We go to our processor members first and say ‘how much do you want us to grow for you?’ So they give us their order for the year,” said Clare. “Then we go to our farmer members and say ‘okay, this is how many acres are required, so this is how many acres of production contracts we’re going to do’. The co-op has done that to protect our members so they always have a home for their grain and their grain is always moving. …it’s all about protecting the members, both the buyers and the farmers, so that the buyers’ needs are being met and the farmers aren’t over-growing and ending up with extra grain in the bins.”

The crop also becomes very popular with local kids
when, once a year, Chris uses hemp bales to create a giant slip and slide.

Clare and Chris on the Federowich farm.

Remembering the co-op’s champion

On our tour we pass Hemp Sense, a processing business that has started up in the area, as well as miles of fields grown by local farmers. We stand in fields of two different hemp varieties – among the 10 varieties developed by the co-op and named for people who have been involved with it. In a field of “Joey” hemp, Keith and Clare reminisced about Joey Federowich, Chris’ father and one of the driving forces behind the co-op’s start.

Joey’s sharing nature was a big part of the co-op’s
ultimate success, Keith said.

“He spent hours and hours on the phone talking to
people no matter where about the crop, the machinery, about making it work and
growing it. In the early days he was a real catalyst — he got information out
to people, promoted the crop and the potential in the industry. He just never
gave up.”

When it came time to name a new variety in 2010, the
year after Joey passed away, there was no question what it should be called.

Catalyst Credit Union

When we arrived at Catalyst Credit Union the next
day, Sisan’s reputation proceeded him.

“You’re the guy who got attacked by the goat!” said CEO Ron Hedley.

Catalyst (now temporarily known as Vanguard Catalyst
after a recent merger), like many credit unions in small prairie towns,
supports its community in numerous ways. It sponsors sports teams and the local
arena, helped the cinema get up and running, and has supported local businesses
when other financial institutions would not. In fact, said board member Stephen
Roznowsky, many small towns might not have a financial institution at all if not
for their credit union.

“Small towns would actually die faster” without
their credit union, he said.

A unique tour of Dauphin

At the end of our interview, Ron said “We’ve
got a surprise for you”.

The surprise is that the credit union owns a seven-seat bicycle that it brings out once in a while for parades, events, or just getting its staff to work (for fun) — and that we would get to ride it. Several members of staff joined us in pedalling around the main streets of Dauphin, as drivers honked and waved at our strange octopus-like bike in true small-town style.

Aboriginal Designers Co-op

When we arrived at the Aboriginal Designers Co-op in Winnipeg, Iris Lauzon was quietly and deftly sketching lines on a large, blank piece of brown paper. These simple and seemingly easy pen strokes were the very beginnings of what would, when she was finished, become a silver, full-length bridesmaid dress — one of eight — with a beaded Thunderbird symbol on the skirt bottom.

Iris Lauzon

Iris has been a seamstress for many years, having
studied under Yvonne Yuen at her design school in Saskatoon. So impressive are
her skills that she once created a custom beaded jacket for Senator Murray
Sinclair that he wore when he was first sworn in.

Now she is one of four members of the Aboriginal Design Co-op: a small, colourful shop in the corner of what used to be the Neechi Commons. Though it was sad to see the remnants of the Neechi Commons through closed shutters when we visited, that the design co-op still exists is heartening. The local media and word-of-mouth support has been helpful in making sure people know that the design co-op is still up and running, Iris said.

Custom fabric by co-op member Roxanne Shuttleworth

The co-op model is ideal for the craftswomen who own the shop together. It gives them each a place to display and sell their work — clothing, jewellery, paintings, custom fabric, and more — while only having to be in the shop to mind the till one day per week and one Saturday per month. The rest of the time, Iris said, they can each focus on doing what they love — creating things.

“I think it’s a perfect set-up,” she
said, “to just have to come in one day a week and then the rest of the time you
can work on your pieces.”

Iris tells us this while doing a few quick measurements
and then drawing the outline of the back of a dress in the paper in front of
her. She’s lost count of the number of times she’s done this, and admits that
even when she’s not working, she’s designing in her mind. Above her is a small
sign that she embroidered and placed above the counter: “I might look like
I’m listening to you, but in my head I’m sewing”. 

The Power of Alberta: a farmer-owned terminal and DIY utilities

In July, we hopped in the car and drove to Alberta to visit two co-operatives helping rural areas grow and thrive.

We first arrived in Westlock, Alberta, a town north of Edmonton built on agriculture, with the railway at its heart. Westlock Terminals – a well-known New Generation co-op built through the innovation, grit and vision of local farmers – is a prominent fixture of the community.

Westlock Terminals

Westlock Terminals in Westlock, Alberta.

Westlock Terminals is an independently operated grain terminal located on a CN Rail line. The profitable co-operative business is owned by hundreds of shareholders from the surrounding area.

Their website says the terminal is owned by “a blend of farmers and business people” who benefit from “regular returns to shareholders through the dividend yields of the Class “C” shares as well as the incentive yields of the Class “D” shares.” 

Westlock Terminals Chief Executive Officer, Clifford Bell.

The CEO, Clifford Bell, was kind enough to tell us all about the co-operative and the ways the business benefits local farmers. When we asked if there were any local farmers we could speak to, he took a quick look around.

But he didn’t need to look far.

Just outside Clifford’s office, Hank was waiting for his truck to be unloaded. Hank was happy to tell us about how much he appreciates having Westlock Terminals as an option for his grain. 

Hank farms in the area with his two sons, and is an investor in Westlock Terminals. While we’re chatting, he also mentions he used to sit on the board of his local retail co-op in Neerlandia and urges us to check it out too.

“Co-ops are good, I think they’re great,” he said. “…Co-ops take support, eh? You’ve got to support them and do business with them…I’m a very strong co-op supporter, and all my family is.”

The more we spoke to Hank, the more he wanted to tell us about the Neerlandia co-op: “It’s been a really, really good place to do business. It’s paid good dividends…we’d have spent that money anyway on crop inputs, [but] we wouldn’t have got to share in the profits [if we shopped elsewhere].”

Instrastructure and community

Later, we visited Ralph Legriger — Mayor of Westlock — who not only answered our questions about his community but gave us an amazing tour of some of his favourite parts of town.

Westlock Mayor, Ralph Legriger.

The Westlock Rotary Spirit Centre is an impressive facility for a small community, and contains a rink, fieldhouse, track, and gym. Inside is a mural that Ralph wanted to show us, made up of tiles painted by members of the community. This is a truly spirited community rooted in agriculture and working together.

Next, he introduced us to the Canadian Tractor Museum – which is hard to miss, given that it’s marked by an old tractor on a tall pedestal. (Talk about going the extra mile! As we stood chatting among the impressive collection of vintage farm machinery, a train began to rumble by.

Besides providing investors a positive return on their investment, Westlock Terminals helps ensure the viability of local infrastructure, rail being one example.

People complain about having to wait for the train, the mayor noted as we watched the traffic stop to make way for railcars to pass through town — but he said he asks them: “What’s on that train? Everything that makes the town run.”

Neerlandia Co-op

After hearing Hank speak so highly of Neerlandia co-op, we decided to take a quick side trip to check it out. We were not disappointed. Pulling into the parking lot, Sisan remarked: “Forget Neerlandia – this is Co-oplandia.”

The retail co-op is massive: it includes groceries, a home store, liquor store, restaurant, sporting goods, agriculture products, automotive parts and repair, and a cardlock. More impressive? Neerlandia is a town of only about 100 people.

General Manager Albert Mast graciously cut his coffee break short to tell us about the co-op where he started working as a clerk in 1976. He said the co-op started in 1922, and has grown considerably due to the loyalty and support of members that come from miles around.  

Battle River Power Co-op

The next day we headed south of Edmonton to a facility just outside of Camrose with an unassuming building that packs a lot of punch. Because of this place and the dedication of the people inside it, rural residents in the area have power in their homes and have for about 70 years.

Co-operatives First has been a follower and admirer of Battle River Power Co-operative for some time now. When brainstorming places in Alberta that would suit The Backroad Diaries, they were a natural choice to include on the tour.

The utility provider has been in business for about 7 decades and was founded (and continues to be run) by independent and entrepreneurial rural Albertans. Their mission is “to provide the best and most cost effective electric power service to [their] 8,500 member-owners.” And they do this with both class and grit.

Their social media is chock full of useful and timely information related to service and benefits, which include a really smart way of supporting local businesses and the regional economy. (Check it out for yourself: It’s awesome!) And they’re line team goes above and beyond to ensure everyone has power.

Rural hospitality

When we contacted Battle River Power’s Communications Manager, Betty, she, in a way that is truly unique to rural areas, also went above and beyond to make sure we felt welcome and were well taken care of. (Thanks, Betty!)

Betty arranged for us to speak to the Chair of the Board and the General Manager of the co-op, as well as a long-time lineman, and the vegetation manager (that ever-important person who ensures trees don’t interfere with power lines). She brought in some loyal members for us to talk to over lunch (which she also provided, bless her).

Bob and Margaret Prestage have been members of Battle River Power Co-op in Alberta since 1975

Not everything went according to plan though. Betty had arranged for us to get some footage of linemen doing some repairs out in the field, but apologized profusely when we had to cancel that part of the schedule due to bad weather. (Weather-wise, rural Alberta can be an unpredictable place.)

The area had experienced some pretty serious thunderstorms over the last few nights, and the linemen were out all night getting people’s power back up and running. (Because it’s more than a 9 to 5 gig – especially when its your friends, family and neighbours who are impacted.) The result of the long night was that the linemen wouldn’t be doing any scheduled jobs that day.

Sisan and Aasa with Glenn, Map Analyst for Battle River Power Co-op

Still, she arranged for us to have a tour of the area with Glenn, Map Analyst and long-time line-man, who drove us around to see some of the houses they provide service to. Glenn also offered up an amazing amount of detail about volts, power lines, and transformers. (You’re in good hands, folks. That guy really knows his stuff!)

The local advantage

Battle River Power Co-op General Manager, Colleen Musselman.

Colleen Musselman, Battle River Power’s GM, said being a co-op is about quality of service – especially when outages hit. Unlike other utility providers that no longer provide service between 11:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., Batter River Power linemen go out immediately and work until everyone’s power is up and running.

In a city, Colleen said, linemen might turn on power for thousands of people with one repair: because the co-op serves rural areas exclusively, they may be working to make sure just one house gets its power back. This reality is what kept large corporate utility companies out the area back in the 40s when REAs were starting up in Alberta. Today, it’s what makes Battle River Power Co-op different from its competitors.

The rural advantage

When an ice storm took down 40 miles of power lines in 2007, linemen worked for five days straight, at times in water up to their waists. Some members were without power for five days or more, but could see how hard linemen were working to restore the line; they pitched in where they could, providing food to the workers, or helping plow access roads.

In that process, Colleen said, they learned “the benefit of what people can do together to really care about people and make a difference.”

A central part of a way of life

At Co-operatives First, we’ve sometimes been told co-ops and Alberta aren’t compatible. We (very politely) disagree. What Westlock Terminals and Battle River Power Co-op show is that the model is very much in line with the entrepreneurial and independent spirit of Albertans.

Like the folks at Westlock and Battle River Co-ops, many Albertans see the co-op model for what it is, which is what helps them use it so effectively. The business model is a great tool for DIY projects, and DIY is very much Albertan. In fact, the model is an excellent option for entrepreneurial and independent people looking to take matters into their own hands, rather than wait for suits out east or government to do it for them.

What a view! Aasa and Sisan taking in the view from the top of Westlock terminals.

Alberta’s REAs, like Battle River Power, can also create an ecosystem in which people get a service they need, good paying jobs are created, and the local economy benefits — especially with a “buy local” policy, such as Battle River Power’s Member Benefits program. Plus, successful co-operative businesses tend to re-invest heavily in the local community, in some cases providing scholarships, sponsoring sports teams or paying for playground equipment.

For many rural Albertans, co-ops are a central part of their way of life. We think co-ops and Albertans are a highly compatible pairing.

A special “thank you” to Cliff, Hank, Ralph, Colleen, Bob, Margaret, Glenn, Betty and everyone else we met along the way for the amazing Alberta hospitality!