Editorial: Closure announcement invokes sense of betrayal

Effective June 1, the Little Current branch of Northern Credit Union will close, leaving Manitoulin without a credit union, the first time since 1952.

News of the impending closure of the last credit union branch on Manitoulin reverberated across the Island this past week, eliciting cries of outrage that reflect the sense of betrayal felt by many of its customers who had remained loyal despite the company’s decision to close all but one of its Island branches. It has become clear that the once beloved grassroots financial institution that offered a more community-based alternative to the big banks has itself grown to become just another big institution governed by faceless bureaucrats gathered around a distant boardroom table.

True, that headquarters boardroom is still located in a Northern city, but these latest actions by the company leave one with the nagging question: for how long? What remains of the old community-centred model that once separated local credit union branches from the branch plant persona of the “big six”? In fact, despite the reasoning for closure provided by the credit union’s head office in a surprise press release, two of those big six banks will still have a presence on Manitoulin even as the moving vans depart from the last Island Northern Credit Union branch.

Adding insult to injury in the minds of many Islanders is that the decision to abandon the last Manitoulin site was announced leveraging the steep decline of in-person visits to the Little Current branch during a pandemic lockdown.

Credit union customers in Little Current are now experiencing the sense of loss their compatriots in Gore Bay and Mindemoya felt when the branches in those communities closed in recent years.

For an institution that touts itself as “co-operative to the core” and proudly tells prospective members that “At Northern, you’re an owner and shareholder with a say in how we operate,” the surprise announcement is particularly galling. So-called “ambassador” community members on Manitoulin were apprised, not consulted, just moments before a faceless entity pushed the send button on the general media release announcing the closures.

Viewed through the lens of recent actions, the institution’s website claims provide a bitter taste to the eye. “Locals serving locals?” “Our team lives locally?” Perhaps in the multi-branch community where the head office is located this can still ring true. There are those who recall how the employees were winnowed when amalgamation took place.

As has proven to be the case in The Expositor’s own industry, when corporations acquire small community papers the definition of “local” expands exponentially. Credit union giants are well advised to take heed of how that can turn out in the end. Here on Manitoulin local still means local, and The Expositor still stands today on a field littered with closed small-town colleagues ruled from a corporate perch on high by remaining true to the word.

We are entering an era when fine words are deemed to be equivalent to actions, but when touched by reality, empty fine words crumble to dust at our feet. 

The credit union release announcing the June 1 branch closure states that employees will receive “support” during the transition. Considering recent events those fine words must be providing great comfort to the redundant.

Many Islanders will undoubtedly vote with their feet over the coming months, certainly anecdotal evidence points to many with those intentions, but many loyal customers who are the bread and butter of the institution are locked into mortgages and lines of credit that are not so easily transported—particularly during these challenging times being faced by most businesses.

When the old Espanola and District Credit Union (itself having absorbed the older Island-born community-based financial institutions) was amalgamated into the body of the larger Northern portfolio, there were voices who raised warning of what could soon be lost. Dismissed by some at the time as alarmist, actions soon proved those voices to be prophetic.

Many Island customers of the credit union are elderly and of a generation that remains engaged with the personal and face-to-face interaction with those they entrust with their financial security. It is largely why they joined a credit union in the first place, rather than opening an account at one of the big banks. The distance from Gore Bay or Mindemoya to Little Current might not have seemed like much of an impediment to a remote head office, but even those faceless entities whose hands are at the tiller must realize that increasing the over half-hour jaunt to more than an hour’s expedition will be untenable for many—but do those huddling over the spreadsheets care? Let them use internet? Just another sign of the disconnect that has arisen as the corporation has bloated.

Credibility has long been the foundational bedrock upon which a financial organization will rise or fall.

The steady march of consolidation that has taken place in the credit union ranks has tarnished the very soul of those institutions, turning them into the very faceless entities they were created to replace.

For all the fine words and lofty ideals from which they once sprang, credit unions have clearly become just another big bank.