Quebec Social Economy

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Eric Olin Wright:

"One of the most vibrant examples of an emerging social economy is in the Canadian Province of Quebec. While Quebec has a long history of producer cooperatives in various sectors and other economic activities which could be broadly considered part of a social economy, the term only became part of public discourse over economic alternatives in the mid-1990s.The pivotal event, noted in chapter 6, was a “Summit on Employment and the Economy” convened by the Provincial Government in 1996 to deal with long term problems of unemployment and economic development in Quebec. At this summit a wide variety of organizations from civil society and the economy were invited to participate. Such corporatist policy forums are a familiar thing in many countries with strong social democratic or catholic-corporatist traditions. What was rather special about the 1996 summit in Quebec, however, was the inclusion of social movement organizations, community organizations, and other grass-roots civil society associations in the dialogue.

Out of this meeting came a set of concrete policy proposals for the state and action plans for civil society to enhance the vitality of the social economy in Quebec. Some of these proposals have subsequently been adopted. They involve, among other things, making it much easier for non-profit associations engaged in social economy activities to acquire the necessary financial resources, through government grants, indirect subsidies, or access to credit; the creation of a social economy office within the provincial government; and the consolidation of an umbrella organization in civil society, the Chantier de l’économie sociale to coordinate strategies for enlarging and deepening the role of the social economy. While the social economy in Quebec is still only a small part of the total Quebec economy, it is firmly rooted institutionally, growing in importance, and broadly accepted as desirable.

Two examples illustrate different ways in which the social economy in Quebec functions.

The first example is childcare services. Childcare services can be organized through four basic ways. First, they can be organized within personal networks of family, kinship and friends. This is certainly the most common way traditionally that childcare is provided. Here childcare is motivated by private concerns and it is regulated primarily by moral norms of care and concern for the wellbeing of others. Second, childcare can be organized through markets, either by forprofit capitalist daycare centers, or by self-employed individual childcare service providers. The central motivation for the provision of childcare through markets is private profit, and the norms regulating the provision are anchored in property rights: people have the right to set up businesses to provide services, and parents have the right to sign contracts for these services.

This is the primary way nonfamily childcare services are provided in the United States. Third, the state can directly provide childcare services, as in France. The motivations for provision are some conception of the common good, and the norms regulating the provision are generally some notion of citizenship rights. Finally, the services can be provided by civil society associations of one form or another. As in the state provision, the motivations here are rooted in collective interests, but the norms are more directly grounded in moral concerns for caregiving. This is the Quebec solution.

In Quebec, the Provincial government guarantees universal childcare at a charge in 2008 of seven Canadian dollars per day, but it does not directly run daycare centers. Rather, it provides subsidies to nonprofit daycare centers run jointly by daycare workers and parent volunteers so that the combination of the parent charges and the state subsidies provide a solid living wage for the childcare providers. By 2008 there were over 40,000 childcare workers in this subsidized social economy sector.29 As originally designed, the rules governing the subsidies made them available only to childcare service providers organized as nonprofit associations or worker cooperatives, thus blocking the entry of capitalist firms into this market. Capitalist childcare services were not prohibited from operating in Quebec, but they did not receive the social economy subsidy that underwrites the financial viability of the coops. Needless to say, forprofit daycare providers strenuously objected to this policy, saying that it created “unfair competition.” More recently, under the initiative of a more conservative government with a more neoliberal ideology, private firms have been allowed to receive the subsidy as well, although the sector is still overwhelmingly dominated by nonprofit associations.

A second example is non-medical homecare services for the elderly. This innovation was launched in 1997 based on a proposal by the Chantier de l’économie sociale in its action plan at the Summit in October 1996. Quebec, like most economically developed places, faces a series of difficult issues around the care of the elderly which are seen as increasingly pressing with the ageing of the population and increased life expectancy. As elderly persons become less able to take care of themselves one option is for them to move into retirement communities and nursing homes. Depending upon the location of such facilities, such moves can be extremely disruptive of social networks and, in any case, are generally very expensive (even when they are of low quality). An alternative is for various kinds of services to be created to provide the kind of ongoing practical support that make it possible for the elderly to stay in their homes. This would include things like housecleaning, meal preparation, shopping assistance, and odd jobs. Such services are beginning to be provided on a fairly wide scale in Quebec through the social economy. As described by Nancy Neamtan, the director of the Chantier de l’economie sociale, 10 years after this initiative was launched, the network of nonprofit and co-operative home care businesses across Quebec “employs almost 8,000 people, half of whom were previously unskilled welfare recipients. By offering over 5.6 million hours of home care services to over 76,000 clients, the majority of whom are over 75 years old, these organizations have created jobs, taken pressure off public sector services, delayed institutionalization for many elderly people, reduced the welfare rolls and assured access to home care services in record time to all communities across the province.” The clients of this service pay a sliding scale $4-18 (Canadian dollars) per hour depending on household income for the service. As in the childcare case, the Provincial government provides subsidies to bring the wages of service providers to a living wage level.

Roughly half of the elder-care home services providers are organized as cooperatives and half as nonprofit organizations.31 Nancy Neamtan reports that the ideal model for this sector is what has come to be known as a “solidarity cooperative.”32 This is a kind of hybrid model between a pure producer-owned cooperative, in which the ownership and control of the firm is entirely in the hands of the service providers, and a nonprofit organization, in which the ownership and control of the firm is in the hands of a community nonprofit association. In a solidarity cooperative the board of directors includes representatives of all of the key stakeholders in the activities of the cooperative: the workers, the users of the service, and the broader community. The community involvement helps root the cooperative territorially; the user involvement enhances its responsiveness to the needs of the elderly; and the worker involvement insures that the direct providers of the service have significant control over their conditions of work. The solidarity cooperative model more fully embodies the principle of social empowerment than the simpler cooperative model or community nonprofit model of social economy provision.

The development and vitality of both of these examples of social economy caregiving services – childcare services and homecare services for the elderly – depend significantly on the existence of the Chantier de l’éconmie social, the association responsible for coordinating and promoting the social economy in Quebec.33 The Chantier characterizes itself as a “network of networks”, a forum in which all of the elements of the social economy can meet, discuss problems, formulate new initiatives, and generate synergies. It includes a wide range of categories of members: networks of social economy enterprises including such things as daycare and housing cooperatives; regional associations in the social economy; community development centers; technical resource centers that support social economy activities; social movements including labor unions, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and various kinds of community movements. Recently a network of First Nations has been added to the Chantier. Each of these categories of membership elects people to sit on the board of directors of the Chantier. Various categories of nonvoting members also have seats on the board. The board is responsible for strategic decisions and new initiatives, especially those involving financial instruments created by and under the control of the Chantier. The Chantier constitutes the pivotal associational mechanism through which the diverse activities in the Quebec social economy contribute to a collective process of social empowerment." (

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