Last summer, three rural and remote communities in BC lost their financial institutions. In these days of the populace being (understandably) angry at banks, we sometimes overlook the need for a community to have a local banking option. Without the presence of a local financial institution, people have to leave their communities to do their banking.
Last summer a small group of us at Vancity (including Stewart Anderson, our Community Investment Manager accountable for Aboriginal Partnerships) started talking to the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, off the coast of northern Vancouver Island. We saw that their local economic resilience was severely damaged without a local FI. People were forced to take an expensive ferry ride off-island every time they needed to do their banking (or help their elderly parents do their banking). This took up a good chunk of their productive day. It also took more money than you might guess out of the local economy. When people have to leave the island for their banking, they’re pretty likely to get their hair done, pick up their hardware and groceries, or fill up with gas while they’re in a bigger city.
Without a local banking option, fast forward, say, ten years and the community will see many businesses shutter, and the number of tourists decline. Small communities can’t afford that. Honestly, no one can.
We began working on a mutually beneficial arrangement that could sustainably support the needs of the community. In the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay, we found great partners with whom we knew we could build a strong partnership based on reciprocity—a partnership steeped in the co-operative principles.
On May 20th we opened our 59th branch on Cormorant Island, striking up an important partnership between Vancity, the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay.
What makes us think we can support a rural and remote community when others haven’t been able to? It can be summed up in one word: Intentions.
If our intentions are to put maximizing our profits above anything else and run each branch exactly the same regardless of the unique community needs in which it exists, then I would predict our success to be low. We began instead with asking our potential partners, “What do you need?” We kept our focus on the needs of the community and then brainstormed how we might serve their needs. We never lost sight of the ultimate prize, which was local economic resilience on Cormorant Island. With that in mind, we then figured out how to solve their problems while still earning a return from the arrangement.
This isn’t about a hand out. This is a hands-together model. If this was charity, then it would result in a relationship with an asymmetrical power dynamic. This would lead to failure, I am sure, especially given the horrible history of how the First Nations have been treated. It would also create the risk that if the branch lost money continuously, at some point Vancity could decide to change direction.
Time will tell if our business case was correct and whether we can run the branch and serve the needs of the community sustainably for all partners involved. I certainly believe we’ve got the right ingredients for tremendous success and support for a community that requires independent economic resilience. I know we’re going to learn a lot from doing things differently in the process.
William Azaroff is the proudly elected Board Chair of Modo, a car-sharing co-operative in Metro Vancouver and Victoria and Director, Business & Community Development at Vancity, a values-based financial co-operative serving the needs of its 500,000 member-owners and their communities.