“Really excited.” That’s how Michael Higgins felt when the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association (CIBA) was founded in 2020. Higgins owns Lunenburg Bound Books and Paper.

“I had been having some very casual, not particularly focused, conversations with other booksellers over the last five or six years about the fact that there was an absence of a national organization that would be an advocacy group for all the independent bookstores across Canada,” Higgins said in an interview. “And so, when CIBA came along, I was really excited… I was a member within the first month or so.”

Today, Higgins is “calling into question” his membership in CIBA.

“The trouble,” as he puts it, started a year ago, when CIBA approached members about partnering with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). Under the terms of the partnership, CIBA members would pay higher annual dues, but would automatically be enrolled as CFIB members as well. The cost would be lower than joining the two organizations separately (Both groups have sliding scales, with CIBA membership dues based on annual sales, and CFIB charging a base amount, plus an additional amount per employee.)

The CFIB touts benefits like discounted shipping rates, lower credit card processing fees, and access to health insurance, But the organization also lobbies on a broad range of issues. It opposes the “broken carbon tax system,” wants the federal government to exempt businesses from paying payroll taxes for new hires, opposes paid sick days and CPP increases, and is against raising minimum wage.

Upset that their CIBA membership now forces them to also be members of the CFIB, some booksellers have launched a petition addressed to the CIBA board of directors, calling for the deal to be renegotiated, so that it becomes “an optional addon for CIBA members at their next membership renewal.” In the introduction to the petition, they write:

We believe in the value of CIBA, and we’re grateful for the hard work of the Board and staff, but this decision was contrary to the independent nature of CIBA’s bookseller members. Forcing independent booksellers to join an association is not in keeping with the independent spirit of our bookstores – we should be free to make our own choice!…

The decision to join the CFIB should be made at the store level, not industry-wide.

Concerns about CFIB’s politics

Cole Davidson, co-owner of the Spaniel’s Tale bookstore in Ottawa, said in an email that he “created the petition in consultation with other booksellers.” Most of the bookstores named in the petition’s “Who are we?” section are in Nova Scotia: Cape and Cowl Comics and Collectibles, King’s Co-op Bookstore, Lunenburg Bound, Venus Envy, and Woozles.

Black-and-white headshot of a smiling young man with short-cropped hair. He has glasses and an earring.
Cole Davidson, co-owner of the Spaniel’s Tale bookstore. Credit: thespanielstale.ca

While Higgins remains a member of CIBA — and, by extension, CFIB — others have decided not to renew over the issue.

“We didn’t renew our membership when they partnered with CFIB,” Venus Envy owner Marshall Haywood said in a text message. And the King’s Co-op Bookstore also dropped out of the organization.

Booksellers who have left or are upset with CIBA have two main concerns: the CFIB’s politics, and the fact that they can’t opt out of CFIB membership.

Haywood of Venus Envy recognized that the CFIB lobbies “on behalf of small businesses” but said “we don’t love the way they push to keep minimum wages low.”

Higgins said a CFIB rep had previously pitched him to join the organization, but he wasn’t interested.

“They are a very, very hard and strong advocator for not raising the minimum wage, and among other smaller details, that one for me is just a heartbreaking position… As a small business, I’m trying to get our wages up as high as I possibly can, and I find it difficult to belong to the Federation of Independent Business. That’s a tough one. And I think it might be one that is going to force me out of CIBA.”

A carpenter for three decades before opening the bookstore, Higgins said he understands “intimately firsthand that working for a living on an hourly wage is challenging.” He said Lunenburg Bound takes the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives‘ living wage calculation as its minimum wage — though he admits to only having started doing that in the last two years. Asked if he had taken advantage of any CFIB benefits, Higgins said he’d explored the health insurance for staff, but “unfortunately, it was still out of reach for me and our employees.”

Like Higgins, King’s Co-op Bookstore manager Paul MacKay described himself as “really excited” about CIBA when it launched. “I happily joined,” he said in an interview. But he has since dropped out of the organization.

MacKay said it “boggles the mind” that CIBA would “make what I consider to be a misstep of this magnitude.”

He added, “There’s a certain type of person that benefits from conservative CFIB policies, or who is interested in those. That’s not me. That’s not a lot of younger people who are trying to get into the book business. More and more independent bookstores are opening. It’s fantastic. But this is going to penalize people who are not of the same sort of ilk.”

MacKay said he and other booksellers were upset when talk of partnering with the CFIB was raised, and at the outcome of the member vote.

58% of CIBA members voted in favour of CFIB partnership

In an email to MacKay dated June 29, 2022, CIBA executive director Laura Carter summed up the partnership’s origins:

This proposal stems from conversations the board of directors had about how we could support booksellers by finding cost saving opportunities. At that time, not all board members were CFIB members but those who were gave concrete examples of how much they were able to save on costs like credit card fees and shipping, and how valuable they found the business support services and health plans for staff. From there, they asked us to reach out to CFIB to see if they could propose a reduced group rate for CIBA. The rate we were able to negotiate required that we pay a bill based on the total number of CIBA bookseller members, but at a deeply discounted rate from what they could get on their own. The board felt it was a valuable proposal to have members vote on.

Carter noted to the Examiner that the Association des libraires du Québec has had a “successful” partnership with the CFIB “for years.”

MacKay said 63% of CIBA members voted, with 58% in favour of the CFIB partnership. He notes that 32 bookstores were already CFIB members, and presumably represented a chunk of the pro-partnership votes. (CIBA has 140 bookstore members.)

Lori Cheverie of Bookmark in Charlottetown is the CIBA board of directors secretary. In an email, she said her store has found the “CFIB valuable in that we’ve been able to save money in areas of shipping and merchant fees. I don’t know that I 100% agree with any group or organization I belong to so wouldn’t expect this to be any different. We vote when asked, understanding the majority rules. We take the money we save and put it towards areas we’re passionate about and make sure we’re vocal in letting them know our opinions in the many questionnaires they send out.”

Asked if she was surprised by the reaction of CIBA members upset with the partnership, Cheverie wrote, “Anytime there is a vote, there are people for and those against. We never expected the vote would be unanimous…”

‘It’s all or nothing’

MacKay and Higgins both expressed concern that CIBA wasn’t taking opposition to CFIB membership seriously.

In an email to MacKay sent last year, Carter pointed out that the King’s Co-op Bookstore’s dues would only increase by $112 annually, and that MacKay was free to simply not activate his CFIB membership — a suggestion which seemed to incense him.

“The money is not the issue,” he told the Examiner. “I have that money and will happily give it to any group I am a member of and see value in, but I’m not going to give it to someone I fundamentally disagree with.” MacKay offered to pay the increased membership, with CIBA keeping the additional dues, but was told that wasn’t possible. “They were like, nope, the CFIB says it’s all or nothing,” he said.

That all-or-nothing aspect of the partnership bothers Higgins and Davidson of the Spaniel’s Tale, one of the originators of the petition. In an email to the Examiner, Davidson wrote, “Under the current CFIB partnership, booksellers who do not support the political advocacy of the CFIB are being told that they’re not welcome in CIBA. We believe that CIBA will be a stronger organization if it’s more independent and inclusive, allowing all booksellers to make their own choice on the CFIB.”

Carter told the Examiner that having CFIB membership available as an add-on, or on an opt-out basis is not possible because “CFIB does not allow for this kind of group membership.”

Higgins called that “shocking.”

“So, as an organization of independent bookstores, we’re now being told what we can and can’t do in some regards, in respect to the Federation [of Independent Business], by the Federation. And it doesn’t feel good to me as a human and as a business owner… to affiliate myself with an organization that is actively lobbying to suppress wages,” he said.

CIBA to survey membership on issue

CIBA is planning to survey members now that the partnership has been in effect for a year. “As has always been our plan, now that we are coming up on the one year mark we are preparing to survey our members,” Carter wrote. “We look forward to conducting the survey so that we have a comprehensive understanding of how, and if, the CFIB membership benefit is working for our booksellers.”

There are concerns about the review. Unlike the decision to make CFIB membership mandatory, CIBA is not holding a vote, but rather a survey, which Carter said “is designed to gauge satisfaction with the partnership.” Then, “the CIBA board will decide how to proceed based on what they hear. A vote is one possible outcome.”

But the Examiner has learned that the survey will be neutral in tone, won’t outline arguments for or against, and won’t ask members if they believe the partnership with CFIB should be optional. Rather, the intent is to ask bookstores how they are using CFIB benefits, and if they are satisfied. MacKay called this approach “disingenuous.”

‘It’s a pretty important issue’

Davidson said CIBA staff* and some board members asked him to consider taking down the petition. But he said it is staying up “as a means of advocating for change ahead of the review.”

“Friends sometimes disagree and that’s ok,” Davidson said. “This discussion is a sign of a strong, vibrant association made up of passionate, independent booksellers.”

A man in his thirties, with a thick beard and wearing a wool fisherman's style toque, stands in front of a bookshelf holding up a copy of Desmond Cole's book The Skin We're In.
Paul MacKay, who manages the King’s Co-op Bookstore, holds an advanced copy of Desmond Cole’s “The Skin We’re In”. Credit: Paul MacKay

MacKay agrees that debate is good. As a member of the Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, he says he has seen plenty of disagreement: “Bookstores are all different. We’re all run by people who are all different… We get together with our Atlantic regional association… and we disagree about stuff all the time. I think this, they think that. That’s fine.”

But the CFIB question seems different to him, because it’s not just about disagreement, but about exclusion, and “subsidizing” the CFIB.

He said, “I don’t want to get in a fight with other bookstores. We’re all trying to do the same thing, generally. We agree for the most part about how things should be done and, on supporting each other, which I think is great. And I think if an association is purported to be for bookstores, it should be for all the bookstores. I might not agree with how CIBA decides to spend the money we’ve pooled together, but that’s their decision. I could have my opinions on it, if there’s a vote. Sure. But to raise dues specifically to give to another association that has nothing to do with us, because you want to save some money on shipping and things like that?”

Higgins struck a similar tone.

“In an organization of a couple of hundred bookstores, I don’t think you’re going to find uniformity of opinion, and I’m happy to embrace that,” he said, during a break from serving customers at Lunenburg Bound. “For me, it’s a pretty important issue. I’m genuinely uncomfortable, and I’ve lived with that now since the the alliance [with CFIB] was formed. But increasingly, it seems CIBA isn’t that motivated to resolve it, and that makes me call into question my membership in CIBA, which is shitty, you know?”

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said CFIB staff and board members asked that the petition be taken down. We’ve updated this version and regret the error.

Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. There might be more members of the CFIB who feel the same way about the advocacy and want it to change. It’s generally not in the best interest of a small business to advocate for measures that help mostly multinational corporations they are competing with. This could be a great opportunity to shake things up a bit at the CFIB as well.