Islanders strike back at CCCU

Island communities to take credit union fight to the members.

SOINTULA—Threatened with the loss of their banking services by the board of Coastal Community Credit Union, three small island communities are seeking assistance from an unlikely but potentially powerful ally — the credit union’s 100,000-plus members.

CCCU announced two weeks ago the closure of its branches in Alert Bay, Sointula and Cortes Island, effective July 5, claiming they were no longer financially viable.

A caravan of North Islanders traveled yesterday to Nanaimo for CCCU’s annual general meeting. There, they presented a resolution calling for a vote of the credit union’s full membership to rescind the planned branch closures.

“The question remains why it was done,” said Jeffrey Jones, a Sointula-based lawyer. “No information been given about the financial status of these branches. They could easily address this by providing the information.”

And, now, the three islands’ residents may be forcing the CCCU board to provide that information — or, better yet, to back off on its plan to close the three remote branches and reduce service at its Quadra Island branch.

Through research, Jones discovered a section in the Credit Union Incorporation Act that requires the board to call a vote of its full membership on any resolution that can generate at least 300 members’ signatures.

In just three days after Jones drafted the resolution, it drew nearly 600 signatures, including a number from members not directly impacted by the closures.

“It’s quite a robust, democratic factor that is in the credit union movement,” said Jones. “And it’s consistent with its roots as a cooperative.

“The specific concern is for impacts on our communities, which is significant. But there’s a wider concern that the credit union is moving away from its roots and starting to mimic the corporate structure, which does not have its focus on people or on members, but on profits.”

When the closures were announced without warning on Apr. 1 — the first day of the new fiscal year — civic leaders and concerned citizens in each of the three communities quickly banded together for a unified response.

An Alert Bay delegation of Mayor Michael Berry, George Speck and ‘Namgis administrator Heather Nelson-Smith joined Regional District of Mount Waddington Area A director Heidi Soltau of Sointula and Strathcona Regional District Director Noba Anderson of Cortes Island in a meeting last weekend with CCCU’s board chair and CEO during the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (AVICC) meeting in Parksville.

“Basically, we asked them if they’d ask their board to consider extending the deadline for closure, so we could consult with our members,” said Soltau. “Our feeling was, look, we’re not going to negotiate with a gun to our heads. We need to negotiate in good faith.”

All three communities would be left without a physical banking presence on their islands, as the proposed branch closures include removal of ATM machines. Local businesses have said full closure would be devastating to the economies of the communities and necessitate costly, time-consuming and potentially risky trips to Vancouver Island to make deposits and conduct other business.

A press release sent out this week by a hastily formed Sointula committee noted the community had its own credit union, formed in 1949, before it was essentially forced to merge with Evergreen Credit Union in 1999. Evergreen was later absorbed by Coastal Community in the first decade of the 2000s.

Sointula Credit Union possessed a new building and assets of about a half-million dollars when it was merged, said the release. And now CCCU is proposing to abandon the community but keep those assets.

“That’s theft, morally if not legally,” resident Clement Lam said.

Jones couldn’t help but notice the irony in the credit union’s closure in Sointula, which was built as a utopian socialist community by Finnish settlers early in the 20th century.

“It’s a sad irony, but there is a wider trend to consider,” he said. “The credit union movement and CCCU in particular, I hope they re-think their strategy. The credit union movement was created in 1930s to combat the corporate lack of responsiveness to the needs of the people. If they turn into a bank, they’re not going to survive.”