Birth of a Workers Co-operative

Martin and Graham – Victoria B.C. 1977

Following a five thousand mile trip from the Caribbean, Martin and I arrived in Victoria, British Colombia. Fresh off the ferry, we drove our little blue bug Gertie directly to a friend’s house were we crashed until we discovered 1280 Walnut Street. Two eligible bright British blokes were apparently a good fit for the alluring siren residents and we eagerly accepted their invitation to join their hippie domain. We built ourselves bedroom cubicles in the basement, practised yoga, became passionate about food politics, embraced Canadian feminism and enjoyed endless parties. Canada was very good to us.

‘Walnut House’ quickly became home and the headquarters for our new business Astral Moves. Gertie got a stable mate in the driveway – a 1965 step van purchased for $650 and named Astral. We soon had an income from moving furniture up endless flights of stairs and hustling to deliver new treasures purchased by punters at the local auction centre. It was always a spartan lifestyle and for our first Christmas dinner in Canada I joined Martin and my housemates dumpster diving, for the first time in my life and discovered the gourmet treasures left behind after supermarkets shut for the holidays.

Everything changed for Martin and I after we worked a volunteer shift in Fernwood Food co-op and offered to use Astral to pick up the next food order in Vancouver, over on the mainland. As budding entrepreneurs we covered some transport costs by agreeing to take over half a ton of granola and bread made by a small workers co-operative based out of Amor De Cosmos Bakery. We were soon doing twice weekly trips to/from Vancouver transporting healthy organic whole foods back and forth. The trip was short but exhilarating, comprising mostly of a glorious ferry ride past pristine gulf islands, humpback whales, seals and dolphins.

Our connections and conversations mushroomed and in early 1978 we joined an unlikely bunch of idealistic hippies to create a healthy and super conscious workers co-operative. Named ‘Peoples Share Collective’ (P.S.C.) our motto was ‘no bosses here’ and our goal was to develop a full scale retail bakery and natural food distribution organisation. We had some donated ovens and assorted equipment but virtually no money so we got ‘new age’ and very creative.

As newly converted communitarians we pooled all our income into one pot and agreed to only take the minimum amount required to survive. Nearly all of us lived in communal houses and most of our meals came from food P.S.C. provided. We ate a lot of brown rice and tofu in those idealistic days. Our ways were wild, our hair grew, Martin wore a kaftan and changed his name to Mountain! To further our ‘fun-raising’ we decided to organise food booths at Music Festivals like the Vancouver Folk Festival and the Courtney Faire. We fed hundreds of hippies, got to hear loads of great music, and made some life long friendships along the way, but I don’t think we made much money. Mountain once estimated we earned the equivalent of $2 an hour for all our enthusiasm and hard working efforts.

A rather hair brain fundraising idea I had was to deliver a friends furniture from Port Alberni to his new home in Moncton, New Brunsick. I rented a UHaul van large enough to fit the furniture and ‘Gertie’ in the back and set off. That was when I discovered how big Canada really is. It was a 3,533 mile journey, each way! I delivered the furniture and left the van on the east coast and after picking up Mountain in Toronto we drove the Gertie bug back to Victoria. After the three week round trip and all expenses I was left with $680 for our P.S.C. kitty! We also organised community dances at the local AOP hall to raise money and to develop a social network to promote our products. It worked really well and for a couple of summers we rocked and reggae’d and had loads of fun with our growing circle of friends………and then we created our own Festival.

After huge amounts of dedicated work on March 5th 1979 Rising Star Wholefoods Bakery opened at 418 Craigflower Road, Victoria. The first sale was a blueberry muffin but our most famous products were cinnamon buns, peasant bread and sprouted wheat rolls while our wholesale granola production increased to over 2000 pounds weekly. The members involved at the time of the opening were Van Williams, Mountain Barnett, Graham Ellis, Patsy Frederick, Santiago Cole, Birgitta Hellman, Glen McCarthy, David Slabotsky, Joanne Knowlton,  Ronski Kosky, Orrin Kasper and Nadine Simpson………. sorry if I forgot anyone!

We were seriously committed entrepreneurial hippies with three meetings weekly one for business, one for criticism-self-criticism / relationship healing and a potluck purely for fun. It was at one of our early meetings that the women called out the men for not fully sharing in the child care roles – Mountain and I learned more about Canadian feminism and were obliged to step up our consciousness levels in many ways. At later meetings I grew really weary and intolerant of our consensus decision making process when one member insisted on continuously blocking decisions – did everyone have more patience than me?

We decided to rent a rundown shop space next door to the bakery where Glen and I spearheaded the expansion of our food distribution operations. In addition to bringing a lot more items from Vancouver, that Glen sourced, I began deliveries to health food stores and food co-ops and loved expanding out to the iconic farmers markets on Vancouver Island, Saltspring Island and Galiano Island. We soon bought a bigger truck and the business just kept expanding and expanding but so did my horizons and I moved on to other adventures.

During the 80’s and 90’s, natural and organic foods continued to gain acceptance and were primarily sold in natural food stores. By the millennium, most grocery stores had joined the growing healthy foods and environmental movement and P.S.C. Natural Foods started to supply them as well as pharmacies, buying clubs, restaurants, café’s, institutions, and other specialty retailers. P.S.C. moved to ever bigger locations purchased a growing fleet of vehicles and prospered as Vancouver Island’s leading distributor of natural and organic grocery products. In 2001 it partnered with another former Co-operative from Vancouver, Horizon Distributors and has since grown into a multi-million dollar business but sadly it is no longer a workers co-operative and instead is run by a bevy of bosses as a capitalistic style, Limited Company.  

In late 1979 P.S.C. expanded again to operate ‘The Oasis’ a vegetarian café in downtown Victoria and by 1981 the bakery was moving to a sparkling new location on Broad Street because business had grown exponentially. Sadly the strain was beginning to show on the collective. I was obliged to leave by Canadian immigration and returned to the Caribbean while several original members burned out or decided to move on. Mountain came to visit me in St. Lucia and later, in 1983, he bought the bakery with his wife Nadine and they ran it very successfully as a family business for many years. He had kids, became a bigger family man, cut his hair and changed his name back to Martin. The workers collective bubble had burst and the dream dissipated into the ethers as hippies grew up and went their separate ways. But I’m certain that, for many of us, those pioneering renegade years will never ever be forgotten.

I grieved the slow dissolution of our communal hippie dream from far away in St. Lucia and I wrote to my P.S.C. sisters and brothers. “My feelings towards you all have changed, like the seasons, since I left last August. I’ve suffered lovesickness and aloneness, I’ve looked for your consciousness, I’ve missed your care, your concern and even your criticism. This world is very far from P.S.C. and inferior in many ways. I realise how much I appreciate what we created and how much I care about the future.

You all look different to me now. The eternal struggles which I once considered to be a tiring negative energy drain seem much more relevant and important. Our inability to resolve many crucial issues caused me endless frustration but now I see that to merely discuss these matters in a collective manner was a major accomplishment. This world can learn much from you all and can be improved through your struggles. Deep within I feel the importance of what P.S.C. was attempting to do. What is happening now to our co-operative ideology? Is everyone giving up on our renegade experiment?”

Walk in peace – Graham

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “Birth of a Workers Co-operative

  1. Brother Graham thank you very much for sharing this panorama of brilliance and summing it up with the pensive feeling of loss as times and situations have changed for all of us. I hope life is fairly comfortable and comforting for you even with the lockdown hysteria. Still no Pohoiki road access here which means mostly Stephanie and I watching the garden and weeds grow. But some hints of road works later this year which would mean we can entice John to come back to the farm then as well as present our airbnb cabins. If that ever normalizes, Stephanie can consider possible travels again. But no way would we want to be vaccinated. Many hugs and Aloha with love to you and the familyGeorge

    Liked by 1 person

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