Economic Development and Job Creation - Some innovative experiences from Quebec

This document has been made available in electronic form
by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
December, 1996
  (Source: Coop Dialogue, Vol.4, No.4, May-Dec.,pp.18-22)

Economic Development and Job Creation
Some Innovative Experiences from Quebec Co-ops
Claude Beland************************************************

Let me first draw an overall picture. The Province of Quebec is 
a nation of some 7 million people distributed over a territory three 
times as large as France and forty times the size of Switzerland. 
This territory is divided into over 1,500 municipalities. Its 
economy is generating a Gross Domestic Product of some 160 
billion Canadian dollars, which gives its population a standard 
of living comparable to that of people living in Austria, Belgium 
and the Netherlands. In terms of GDP, Quebec comes eleventh 
among OECD countries. Finally, within the North American 
demographic environment comprising some 300 million 
English-speaking persons, French is the language of 80% of 
Quebec's people.

A Major Financial Network
Over the years, the men and women of Quebec have built a 
full-fledged financial institution called the Mouvement des 
caisses Desjardins which has been for some time, throughout 
Quebec, a major network of financial institutions responding 
to the financial needs of the province's various economic 
agents. It is also a modern dynamic co-operative organization, 
whose mission is to contribute to the economic and social 
well-being of individuals and communities.

Today, 93 years after the first caisse populaire was founded 
by Mr. Alphonse Desjardins, in excess of 4,500,000 persons 
are members of the 1,325 local caisses populaires or credit 
unions, linked together by a direct-access data processing system. 
The local Desjardins caisse is the lone financial institution in 
no less than 675 towns in Quebec.

The caisses are regrouped into federations who, in turn, have 
set up a Confederation, whose role mainly consists in orientation 
and coordination functions, as well as supervision of the activities 
and representation for the Mouvement's individual components. 
The federations and the Confederation have also set up a central
 finance facility and a security fund. Besides, three more 
federations of French-speaking caisses populaires in three other 
Canadian provinces, Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick, 
are affiliated with the Desjardins Confederation.

Finally, in addition to its savings and credit sectors, the network 
of Desjardins caisses owns and controls some 15 complementary 
corporations operating in the fields of insurance, trust services,
 industrial and commercial credit, investment, discount brokerage,
 transportation of securities and credit card services.

As at December 31, 1992, the various components of the 
Mouvement des caisses Desjardins held combined assets of 
56.5 billion Canadian dollars, which means that, over the years, 
the Mouvement has gained a most interesting share among the 
suppliers of financial services in Quebec, now serving two-thirds 
of the Province's population. We are actually ahead of all our 
competitors in each major savings and credit market in Quebec. 
The province's leading financial institution and largest private
employer, Desjardins can count on over 17,000 elected volunteer 
officers and 36,000 employees.

First of all,  a Co-operative
The size and the continued growth of the Mouvement des caisses 
Desjardins did not result from chance or from an obsession with 
profits or power. Our progress and success were in fact due to 
the pride of the people, to their confidence in themselves, and 
their strong social consciousness, as well as to dedicated hard 
work. hen, if all these factors worked out well, it was because of 
the co-operative nature of the project laid out and initiated by 
Mr. Desjardins.

It is true that the savings and credit co-operative model 
defined by Mr. Desjardins at the end of the last century 
centered on one major concern: the gathering of every one's 
savings so that they can be used for the development of each 
one of them, first in his community, then in his town or region, 
and eventually for the whole province of Quebec. Solidarity 
and responsibility are, no doubt, basic features of Desjardins' 
conception of development.

That whole approach has guided the Mouvement des caisses 
Desjardins over the years towards projects supporting economic 
development for the people of Quebec. This involvement, 
however, respected the true values of co-operation: liberty, 
autonomy, self-help, responsibility, etc. and was staged in 
continued collaboration with the community. As a matter of fact,  
Desjardins did not get involved in a continued process of 
development, in order to implement its own solutions, or even
to implement ready-made solutions. The Mouvement did not 
ask governments for help or encourage people to make claims 
in all regards. What the Mouvement did, rather was to get 
together with the community's actors and to help them take 
control of their affairs, to look for solutions with them and to 
support them in their concrete actions to ensure development.

A Changing Society
I firmly believe that today, as our environment is deeply changing 
and the rules of the game are evolving at a fast pace, promoting 
responsibility and self-help among our fellow citizens is a natural 
attitude. As was said by French scientist Albert Jacquard, "We
are creating a new planet". Drastic transformations have been 
impacting on the dynamics of nations and on the world's 
economies. The communications revolution is also generating 
a never-before-experienced circulation of goods, capital and people.

Meanwhile, at the social and political levels, empires are 
crashing down and some new countries or national identities 
not yet heard of, or kept in the dark for a long time, have come 
to the fore. Developments of equal importance and magnitude 
have also been occurring in the area of technology.

But this globalization of economies and markets definitely has 
negative impacts on an increasing number of individuals and 
territories. Efficiency, yield and performance figures have come 
to be the only yardsticks of development. Of course, you have to
produce more and more and to improve on quality, while 
guaranteeing the best price for your consumer, which will ensure 
that you are able to compete in today's world economic context. 
But you must not forget that this model will generate a series of 
costs which many economists, still comfortable within their 
traditional theories and even trying to stretch these to the new-
found planetary dimensions, tend to overlook: endemic 
unemployment, depopulated towns, youths migrating to larger 
centres, citizens growing dependent on state programs and the 
ensuing degradation of the economy and environmental alterations, 

Of course, the economy is an important parameter for it will 
enable people to exchange goods and services. But the economy 
is no more than a means: it is not an end in itself. Up to a 
certain point, the economy is like a form of cancer, through 
which it is no longer serving humans, but humans themselves 
are serving the economy. You end up feeling that you are no
longer living in a society, but in an economy!

Employment, A Key to Our Future
We all know that the significant structural changes now taking 
place and the really tough competition among the most industrialized 
countries are leaving more and more persons out of true 
opportunities. In Quebec, for instance, unemployment figures are 
nearing 13%, representing some 450,000 individuals. In Canada, 
over 1,600,000 persons are unemployed, that is 11% of the 
country's labour force.

Yet, the high costs of unemployment have been much documented.
 for us in Quebec the economic cost of unemployment, when 
measured as a loss of output or national income caused by the 
under-utilization of human resources, amounts to a full 20 or 
25% of its GDP. And the economic costs are only the tip of the 
iceberg since they do not reflect the social costs of unemployment 
conveyed in the form of increased demands for health and 
welfare services due to stress, illness, alcohol abuse, crime...

Here in Europe, the problem of high and prolonged unemployment 
is growing and has been an issue among your populations. 
The member countries of the European Economic Community 
(EEC) are currently reporting 10% unemployment up from 3 
to 5% in the early seventies. This is fairly similar to our situation 
in Quebec and Canada.

You cannot turn your back on such a trend and you must not 
accept it has a fact of modern life. This calls for alternatives, it 
calls for a new economic and social order, one offering a way up 
for a lot of individuals and regions, it calls for a new model of 
development, on making the most of the huge potential not yet
tapped of local and regional economic activity. In a word, 
economies will only be prosperous if you build on local forces, 
be these human, financial, technical or natural, in order to 
create stable and durable jobs.

Employment, we must remember, actually is the lifeblood enabling
 a region and its population to develop. If Quebec, just like several 
other so-called developed countries, is confronted with declining 
birth rates, environmental pollution and youth alienation, the 
employment issue is, I believe, paramount to all these problems. 
For employment is basic to one's security and, by way of 
consequence, to the opportunity one will be given to settle down 
and start a family, to get involved in the community's social and 
economic life and, eventually, to be involved in development of 
society. In as much as we are setting employment as a priority 
issue in economic development programs, we must by all means 
encourage the creation of enterprises.

But for these enterprises to be sources of stable and durable jobs,
their creation must not result from foreign initiatives or 
governmental decisions, but must result from the community's 
own desire and determination. That is what some specialists are 
now promoting when referring to `indigenous development'. 
From within the co-operative world, what we can see in these 
instances is the principle of self-help and mutual aid being widely 

Of course, the presence of natural, technological, financial and 
structural resources will play an important role but the community 
members, before every one else, with their ideas, their will 
and their ability to use these resources in conjunction as a 
genuine tool for development, for themselves, are those who 
can in the long term guarantee the strength of the local, regional 
and national economy.

To support these statements, I would now like to report on 
three achievements in which the Mouvement des caisses 
Desjardins was closely involved and inspired by the spirit and 
true values of co-operation: the Forum for Employment, the
Qualite-Quebec Project and the setting up of regional 
investment corporations.

The Forum for Employment
The Forum for Employment is a wide collaboration table 
launched in 1989 in order to make every one aware of the 
importance of employment. It is bringing together representatives 
from all the major socio-economic partners of our society: 
employers' associations, unions, the co-operative movement, 
universities, municipal boards, youth associations, women's 
groups, cultural communities, etc. In that project, we choose 
not to include the upper levels of governments in order to make 
sure no one would turn the problem over to them and restate 
their traditional list of claims.

At our very first meeting, we did not really know how to 
address the issue. Our different views were exchanged by 
answering successively this simple question: "Do you feel 
responsible for the employment situation in our society?". 
Each one of us, cautiously staying behind walls of his own 
field of activity, declined such a responsibility, pointing a 
finger at some one else, especially those who have political 
power. Shortly after, a new question came to our minds and 
on the agenda: "But how could our elected representatives 
ever solve this tough employment problem, if we, the 
socio-economic partners, are not ourselves concerned enough 
with this issue to start acting?" We then realized and agreed 
that employment was a shared responsibility.

This exercise in partnership, in empowerment and job promotion
 has been a true success. First because the program is still going 
on after close to four years and continues to bring together,
within the national Forum and in regional Forums, the various 
socio-economic agents. Second, because beyond awareness and 
exchanges, the Forum has paved the way to revised attitudes 
and mentalities and has led to concrete actions and opened up 
on increasing numbers of local initiatives.

One regional concentration table, for instance, has produced 
a brochure entitled `BATIS-TON-EMPLOI' or Design Your 
Own Job, intended for those seeking information on job training, 
job hunting, job creation and on-the-job training. This brochure 
gives information on private and public agencies in the region
that may help people find jobs. Another example is an inventory 
of over 400 graduates of vocational training from the community 
and designed to help these youths to find a job. This publication 
included a photograph and a description of the qualifications of 
 each graduate and was distributed to the region's major employers.

Elsewhere, some 40 employers made a joint commitment to 
maintain existing jobs, to encourage the hiring of local manpower 
and to prevent further obstacles by welcoming innovative insertion 
projects. Finally, the people of another region recently launched 
what they call a `Resource Exchange' which, by being accessible 
to the world of education, will help its agents better inform the
youths and adults on the realities of the work place. The same 
agency had previously initiated a project to encourage the community 
in supporting the development of the entrepreneurship abilities and
potential of their unemployed.

In short, these few examples taken from a long list of experiences 
are proof of the desire of the Forum for Employment to identify 
promising solutions to the employment problem, with the input 
and support of all interested socio-economic partners.

As you can appreciate, our forum for Employment is based 
on the "Think globally, act locally" approach. This, in my mind, 
represents the most dynamic and most practical approach 
because, by making the people of all communities fell responsible 
for their own development, you will allow every one there to 
make the most of their energy, of their creativity and dynamism 
and you will put all their talents at work. This is how you can 
help people become active tax payers and consumers. For, in 
fact, when decisions are made and actions are directed from a 
remote centre, the majority will become passive claimants  
whose talents and energy will be literally turned off. I am truly 
convinced that regional and local development calls for the 
dynamic, active involvement and for the combined efforts of 

individuals in their own communities.

The men and women who are making Desjardins all see 
themselves as part of the solution. We positively believe that 
we can make a difference with our daily actions, with our 
choices as citizens and consumers. You cannot expect or even 
hope that your factories will keep running if you are always
buying imported goods. If we want our enterprises to
 produce and to gain access to wider markets, would you say 
that we should, at the very least, allow them to hold a strong 
share of our markets? When quality is the same and prices are 
similar, why should we choose not to support our own enterprises?

With these concerns in mind, the Mouvement des caisses 
Desjardins, along with various socio-economic partners
(manufacturers' associations, unions, farmers' associations, 
co-operatives, etc.) initiated the campaign labelled 
"Qualite-Quebec", an effort intended, from the very beginning, 
to get every one acting together, be them consumers, 
manufacturers, distributors, social bodies, the medias or 
governments, to create jobs and re-energize the economy of 

Several surveys have showed that, over the course of one 
year, replacing $10,000 worth per household of imported 
goods by products made in Quebec would add up to 100,000 
more jobs. In other words, reallocating under $20 of our weekly 
budget would take unemployment figures down by 2% and 
would push economic growth up 3%.

Of course, there will always be some one to argue that buy-at-home 
policies are self-centred gestures and are contrary to current 
trends towards world-wide trade. We can respond however that 
our frontiers may be opened to international market, without 
letting our whole economic space being invaded. I would even 
say that our opening does in fact call, more than ever before, 
for an ability to work closer among us and to strengthen our 
enterprises, as well as the various sectors of our economy, so 
that they may gain enough energy to act as efficiently as 
possible in the new competitive market place. We must remember 
that other nations involved in the globalization of trade have 
demonstrated that, namely Americans, Europeans, and the 

This economic gesture is a sound one, even more so since it 
is based on a voluntary, no-cost solidarity effort. In today's 
economic conditions, this initiative aiming at job creation is 
made more necessary by the fact that recovery has been weak 
and that governments and consumers are still much in debt, 
while enterprises are often denied any profit. Through
Qualite-Quebec all economic agents are encouraged not to 
spend more and get deeper in debt, or to pay no attention to 
the quality and the prices of goods, but rather to displace, in 
what they are already buying, imported goods by quality 
competitively-priced products from Quebec, with the sole 
purpose of helping to maintain or create jobs.

This project, I might add, goes along with the globalization 
trend of markets and strong competition as it is emphasizing 
the high quality of our products and developing a new strategy 
focusing on our own areas of excellence: furniture, clothing, 
pharmaceutical goods, bio-technologies, transportation, bio-food 
products. The Qualite-Quebec campaign, definitely, is not a 
self-centred gesture but rather an information campaign stressing 
the quality of goods made in Quebec. At the same time, it is 
respecting the free choice of consumers, much to the pleasure 
of economists.

Regional Investment Corporations
Once gain guided by our desire to educate people so that they 
will take their responsibilities and also to act in solidarity with
the people of Quebec, but this time in an area of operations 
much more familiar to us, the area of finance, we have been 
much enthused and truly proud to become a leading partner 
in the creation of the network of regional investment 
corporations (the RICs).

This is highly important for Quebec. At a time when governments 
will be less and less able to play an active role in economic 
development, thanks to the regional investment corporations 
set up all across Quebec, in all regions of the province, there 
will be some one to listen to, to help and to encourage the 
dynamism of business people, to foster the local and regional 
entrepreneurship. In the savings and credit co-operative model 
drawn by our founder Alphonse Desjardins, Man has always 
come first. Regional investment corporations will, in some ways, 
represent the extension of that philosophy, since people from 
each community will be responsible for analysing and supporting 
their region's dynamism.

The result of concerted efforts with three other Quebec-based 
financial institutions, including one of our main competitors, 
RICs will grow, within two years, into a network of some 
twelve corporations operating with subscribed capital of some
90 million Canadian dollars. These corporations will make 
investments ranging from $50,000 to 500,000 and, in addition 
to financial support, they will be actively involved in the 
strategic management of recipient enterprises.

The mandate of these corporations is clear: they must recruit 
intelligent, open-minded and aggressive entrepreneurs; they 
must identify those with good projects and who have showed 
firm management in their past endeavours. We will be there 
to help them turn their dreams and expectations into reality. 
The objectives are clear too: first, the blossoming of a 
second generation of entrepreneurs who will be investing in 
human resource management as much as in marketing, so
as to improve the ability of Quebec goods to compete; second, 
enabling regions to achieve better development without 
solely relying on large centers. Decentralizing powers will 
By way of consequence, in the long term, our investment 
corporations will help prevent the erosion of regions, a drain 
extremely costly in all respects. So, the RICs should ensure 
improved complementarily between a strong metropolis and 
dynamic regions.

Local Development Initiatives
Finally, beyond these three national experiences in solidarity 
and concerted action, I would like to mention the involvement 
of our local caisses who have been constantly and continuously 
supporting high numbers of economic development and job 
 creation projects.

These local experiences, often securing the financial support 
needed by the industrial development groups or permitting 
the acquisition of community facilities, are not innovative 
actions as such or large enough to catch the eye of national 
media. These are no mega-projects but we can see our regions 
that, at a time when populations are diminishing and, 
consequently, the social fabric is altered, numerous smaller 
achievements are making people proud of themselves and 
their communities. A first achievement will often trigger a 
second one or simply the extension of the initial project and 
so on, all leading up to a process of continued local and 
regional initiatives.

This is what we, in Desjardins, are calling the small steps 
technique, under which what matters is not the length of the
step but the fact that you are taking a first step, then another 
one, and so on. As you know, in a small community, creating 
10, 15, 25, 50 or 100 jobs may be enough to keep the whole 
town alive.

The Forum for Employment, Qualite-Quebec and the Regional 
investment corporations definitely represent successful 
innovative experiences for economic development and job 
creation. And their success is not due as much to the contents 
of projects as to the actors themselves and to the efforts made, 
first by the people of the community who are contributing their 
creativity, their dedication and their resources in order to 
build a real lever for development, for themselves and their 
fellow citizens. In the process, they are strengthening the 
economy and helping create jobs.

In a word, these experiences are demonstrations of the sound 
and enlightening idea shared by our founder Alphonse 
Desjardins to the effect that the union for life offers more than 
the struggle for life".