Credit Unions, a form of social entrepreneurship

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday October 16 2013 in Opinion
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According to the National Association of Canada’s Credit Unions, these financial institutions have served the interests of working class Canadians since 1900. It was then that Alphonse Desjardins, a journalist and lawyer from Quebec, formed the first Caisse Populaire, or People’s Bank.


Given the benefits Canadians continue to derive from his desire to improve their lives, Desjardins’ efforts in launching the Credit Union movement here are truly worthy of recall. They are even moreso today when considering conditions facing African Canadians in search of decent livelihoods more than a century later. Were he here now, he would recognize many features among us.


In short, our communities, in terms of unemployment and impoverishment rates, are unbelievably similar to those of working class Canadians a century ago. Like them, we, too, in our communities also form organizations to try to address these issues.


What did White working class Canadians have then that we, African Canadians have today? How did they use theirs then? How do we use ours now?


What were the social and economic conditions facing ordinary Canadians in those decades forcing the creating of epochal social movements from east to west across Canada? Individuals involved included Desjardins launching finance systems in Francophone Quebec, and suffragettes like Nellie McClung demanding human rights for women (White, primarily) in Anglophone Manitoba.


The conditions facing ordinary Canadians were dire. Among the ways women tried to change their circumstances was to demand the right to vote. Nellie McClung – who learned to read as an adult – was among these organizers. Then, women, with the legal status of children, could not have bank accounts; were legally prevented from sitting in the Canadian Senate and officially denied the right to vote.


But why was this demand to vote so significant? Was obtaining this right a matter of life and death?


Yes! It was! Inadvertently but definitely, women were also denied the right to having safe childbirths. Then, more than 50 per cent of pregnancies ended in the death of the mother. Similar conditions also obtained in the British West Indies and elsewhere.


Black West Indians, from the Greater Antilles through the Lesser Antilles, through the Leeward and Windward Islands were in revolt against similar conditions. However, it is when Barbados, or Little England, also revolted that the Moyne Commission was established by Great Britain to investigate. The commission’s findings were so damning that Britain, to deny Nazi Germany using it as propaganda in German-controlled Africa, published the commission’s details only after WWII was ended.


In short, the same conditions which moved Desjardins and Nellie McClung to mobilize for social change, also pushed Black West Indians to, and for longer periods. For example, in Trinidad our parents, five decades ago, again, particularly the women, would also demand the rights to ‘Universal Adult Suffrage’ – the right to vote – one obtained decades later in America with the Civil Rights Movement.


This term, ‘Suffragette’, I first heard as a child from our parents. In fact, our grandmother, Augusta Wilhelmina DuBique, born in Roseau, Dominica and married to a Barbadian named Niles in Trinidad, had two special prayers. One was that, after death, she might be so blessed to see the face of Shiloh (Jesus) in peace. The other, that she live long enough to vote, so her grandchildren could have pipe-borne ‘water like Bucky Massa pickney’.


When our parents voted for the first time in Trinidad, Ma could not. I hope her prayer to see God’s face in peace comes to pass, since the other, her having an opportunity to cast a vote did not. She had died decades before. In her memory, our siblings and offspring always vote wherever we live and have the right to.


Again, under the realm of Rule Britannia, social conditions, spanning decades, be they in Canada or the West Indies, were similar. Likewise, these social actions forming movements for financial and political upliftment here and there were similarly motivated.


Not surprisingly, Alphonse Desjardins, a hero in any culture and among any race, is also the kind of Canadian rarely mentioned. Yet, his singular efforts in launching Peoples’ Banks are further credited with launching the Canadian middle class.


He also launched the first nationwide examples of democratic institutions, practice and people power. The principles on which his Caisse Populaires operated included – and still do – the following: control of these by the membership; that this membership choose its Board of Directors; that these decisions be based on one person, one vote.


Thus, today, as his ideas have flourished, there is a federation of credit unions across Canada. Much like those being formed by African-Americans. These elect national leaderships. Today, our national body, 60 years old, the Credit Union Central of Canada, is headquarters in the nation’s capital, Ottawa.


So, what is a Credit Union? Fully financial and financing institutions, owned and directed by their account holders and customers, they operate to provide ‘thrift and credit at better rates than the market would otherwise provide’. Some offer a ‘stripped down version of the financial services banks offer’. And, while Credit Unions might use descriptions different from the banks’, for example, ‘share accounts’ instead of ‘savings accounts’, these are identical in form and function. These services, provided not as profit for shareholders, but for the membership, surpass the services offered by the banks.


Supporting data is available through the Ipsos Best Banking Awards. Ipsos is a finance affiliated organ which annually determines which type of facility offers the best in customer service. In 2012, for the ninth consecutive year, the Ipsos’ Customer Service Excellence & Branch Service Excellence Awards went to Credit Unions.


Credit Unions earned these awards in the following categories: Customer Service Excellence; Best Banking Awards; Values My Business; Branch Service Excellence; Financial Planning and Advice; Mobile Banking Excellence; Automated Telephone Banking Excellence and Live Agent Telephone Banking Excellence. It is no surprise then that roughly one-third of Canadians are enrolled in a Credit Union. This means that Canadians are the ‘highest users per capita of Credit Unions in North America’. In Canada, too, faith-based and ethnic-based Credit Unions are legal, available, and uplifting. Ask Korean-Canadians.


All of these social blessings came from the singular efforts of a Canadian – the eighth of 15 children, three of whom died in childhood. His compassion for the downtrodden, nurtured in his spiritual beliefs, realized their ultramontane fulfillment, blessing his community. In his own words, Alphonse Dejardins’ goal was ‘to fight usury, improve the lot of the working classes, and to bring economic freedom to French Canadians’.


Economic Freedom!


Having established more than 200 Credit Unions across Canada, he died before he could federate them. They were federated in the 1950s. Finally, given the dire poverty of working class Canadians then, from whom and from where did Desjardins obtain the social and financial collateral to undertake this historic work? From the churches in Quebec.


Are our Black churches today similarly sensitized? Are they, while functioning in our African Canadian communities everblessed? And if functioning for our communities, everblessing?

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