As part of the 45th anniversary of our member, the Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins, our coordinator was fortunate to meet with its president, Gérald Larose. Mr. Larose holds a Masters in Theology (1971) and a Master of Social Work (1973) from the University of Montreal. He is best known for his trade union activities in Quebec. After being at the head of the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions) from 1983 to 1999, he became a member of the Board of the Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins, where he holds the presidency since 2000.
In this interview, Mr. Larose presents the Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins and shows us how its action is important for the development of the social economy in Quebec but also the role it can play internationally.
Pauline Boinot: Can you describe the Caisse in a few words?
Gérald Larose: The Caisse is a savings institution, affiliated to the Desjardins movement. It is an institution that has built up over the years. The current Caisse is present in three major sites: Montreal, Quebec and Lanaudière to which we can add the northern Quebec. It has over a hundred employees and has three fields of action: the financing of social enterprises and associations, representing 75 to 80% of turnover, the individual savings sector, the so-called socially responsible finance and finally the promotion of social economy where we find all the networking, including internationally. The turnover of the Caisse is around one and half billion dollars a year and equity capital is around $ 800 million. The Caisse is the 42nd most important institution in the Desjardins Group which has 386.
Pauline Boinot: What role does the Caisse play in social economy in Quebec?
Gérald Larose: First we're the only one to hold this niche specifically. Our main mission is the development of the social economy. We rely on social networks. It is true that the labor movement is important to our organization. Initially with the CSN, but the CSQ (Central Quebec Unions), the SPGQ (Union of Professionals of the Government of Québec) and recently the UPA are also important. So there are great social movement organizations with whom we are in alliance and to which we are the savings and loan agent. Outside the union network, there is also the ecological network of international action, youth and the cooperative network with funeral and housing cooperatives. The Caisse is in alliance with the social movements and supports the development of the activities of these social movements. It has also developed expertise in the field of housing. It is the main institution that supports the development of housing cooperatives here in Montreal but also in Quebec in general. Our way of working is to support initiatives, grow them up and ensure they mature and meet the needs that had been expressed at the beginning. The Caisse is one of the few credit unions to be present throughout the province of Quebec.
Pauline Boinot: This year the Caisse celebrates its 45 years. What are its greatest achievements?
Gérald Larose: We must remember that the modern Caisse was born 45 years ago with a desire to use money for economic activities purposes. At the time, there were credit unions in workplaces that offered only savings and credit. It’s in the city of Quebec, in 1971, that the Caisse d’économie solidaire was created, at the initiative of Léopold Beaulieu, Andre Lorrain and Clément Guimond. Initially, the Caisse financed and developed projects as cooperative garages or family vacation. Thereafter she preferred to empower these activities and support initiatives that were taken in the community. The Caisse is part of savings and credit activities, which were at the same time a community action activity to specialize later in the development of financial tools to support the development of activities in the community. The Cirque du Soleil is a good example of projects supported. Indeed, if it were not for the Fund, they would not be here today. They had explored all the institutions, but nobody wanted to lend to clowns. Finally the Caisse saw that there was an original idea that was likely to get a hit. The circus is still a member of the fund today. We could also mention Serres cooperatives de Guyenne, who deep in Abitibi, produced tomatoes in greenhouses during 30 years, which enabled the village to live decently. The Caisse also played an important role in social housing and in supporting unions. We have an uncommon Caisse that has developed unique tools to allow groups to develop their projects or to face difficult economic conditions which, if it were not for the Caisse, would not have known the gains they experienced thereafter.
Pauline Boinot: What are the activities of the Caisse internationally?
Gérald Larose: The Caisse is linked to INAISE, the Mont Blanc Meetings: International forum of the leaders of the social and solidarity economy but also GSEF (World Forum for Social Economy) to be held in Montreal in September. The Caisse is also very present in the world social forums. It is hoped that the social economy, in the context of plural economy, occupies a space to let people know that there are ways to develop alternative, concretely from resources that exist, but are appropriated by others. Why not having a tool that can help develop the projects we want? We feel it’s important to be in various forums, including internationally so that the economy, which promotes the ideals of justice, solidarity and equity, can get closer to classical and public economy; so that the economy can become again a mean to achievement and not an economy that focuses on itself at the expense of the needs of the population.
Pauline Boinot: How does the Caisse cooperates with other savings and credit cooperatives worldwide?
Gérald Larose: We are in connection with a number of sister organizations, to get inspired and give ideas and products tailored to the niche we occupy. Recently, we made a tour to see how it works elsewhere in the internal management to refine our practices. This is important for the life of the organization.
Pauline Boinot: Finally, how did you arrive at the presidency of the Caisse?
Gérald Larose: I have a particular union experience; I was president of the CSN for 16 years and full-time activist for 25 years. From the 1981-1982 crises, we realized that if we do not weigh a certain weight in economic development, we are at the mercy of an economy that does not aim to answer population needs. During this crisis, the CSN questioned many parameters and it is at a congress in March 1985 that we decided to create our own instruments. The Caisse was already there and has favored the consolidation of a number of local branches to make this Caisse, which became central to the CSN, a real tool for promoting social and solidarity economy. It was also decided to occupy all the places where economic development policies are made and we decided that our regional bodies became involved in the various tools of regional economic development. When I left the CSN Board I was offered to join the Board of the Caisse and a year later I was asked to chair it. We are around fifteen directors of the Caisse, all volunteers, who remind us that this is an activist fund with a desire to transform the world.