The Co-op and St. James Town

Issues the Project will address

St. James Town is likely the most diverse community in the world and is the most densely populated neighbourhood in North America. It consists of twenty-one high-rise buildings in an area less than one-quarter of a square kilometre with a population of close to 30,000 people from over 100 countries speaking an estimated 160 different languages. The majority of residents make less than $20,000 per year.

Key issues that this project will address include income security, food security, social exclusion and isolation. In the UN report on Economic, Social, and Cultural Human Rights in St. James Town developed by the L.E.A.D. Project and St. James Town residents in 2006, a key priority listed by participants was income insecurity, with various participants stating that they do not have enough money for basic necessities such as food and shelter. Too many who are employed find themselves in low-paying and temporary jobs, with over 50% of their income spent on rent. The L.E.A.D. Report also noted social exclusion and isolation in all focus groups, including a lack of community space and activities, as well as lack of social services in the neighbourhood.

St. James Town is one of the most highly educated communities in Canada, encompassing a vast pool of experiences and knowledge; however, there is a lack of opportunities for highly skilled immigrants. To enable and equip New Canadians and others to come together and build their own community would be an excellent way to engage and empower residents to take their lives and futures into their own hands, improve health outcomes and restore dignity.

How it contributes to long-term strategies for sustainable economic opportunities in Toronto

Our community co-op/time bank model for local economic development will enable and empower St. James Town residents to self-generate economic opportunities that meet the needs of the community. Specifically, the community co-op model is:

  • Democratically controlled by neighbourhood residents and local organizations;
  • Designed to meet community needs, which includes a healthy living environment and social inclusivity as well as economic prosperity;
  • Adaptable to change and resilient to crisis and economic downturn;
  • Replicable in other parts of Toronto and other communities globally

The co-operative model is familiar to most new immigrants, given the prominence of co-operatives globally, especially in the global south. The livelihoods of nearly half the world’s population have been estimated as made secure through co-operative enterprises. In addition to being a source of employment and sustainable development, co-operatives provide members with a strong sense of belonging, and pride in one’s work, and “these qualitative components reinforce economic sustainability”. We know that co-operatives are a means to sustainable economic opportunities.

With this collaborative project, we aspire to establish the first community co-op in an urban setting in Canada. The community co-op model (seemingly pioneered by the Muskoka Community Co-op) is different from the more widely known consumer and worker co-op models. It is more flexible, and combines the resources of local organizations and residents to provide capacity for the incubation of community-based initiatives. Within this innovative structure, community members are empowered to initiate and lead projects and social enterprises that reflect their skills interests and needs to provide meaningful employment. Being part of the co-op will provide new projects with the technical support, legal status, and visibility that they need to grow and thrive. Initial projects of the community co-op will include the St. James Town Community Cafe, a food buying club, and potential projects involving community/greenhouse gardening and community education.

By integrating the community co-op model with the economic system of a Timebank, under employed residents and those receiving social assistance will be enabled to participate in the activities and projects of the co-operative. Due to complex systemic issues, too many St. James Town residents are unable to practice their profession or use their valuable skills. Timebanking offers a means of enlisting and valuing the time and resources of community members to “help themselves and support each other in the co-production of services and goods, creating better outcomes and more sustainable support systems”[4].

The UpLift Credit Exchange is a transparent and accountable means of recording and valuing the time and assets residents invest in their community and exchange with each other, thereby supporting the activities of the co-operative in two ways: as a means by which members can supplement their income and “Canadian experience” by earning and spending time credits; and as a volunteer management system for the co-operative, its member organizations, and projects of the co-operative that can also accurately quantify “in-kind” community investment.