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Business ᐊᐱᒥᐱᐦᑖᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐋᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

First Nations Bank also eyes other Cree communities

BY Ben Powless Apr 26, 2019

The news comes after CIBC recently closed its branch in Chisasibi

First Nations Bank of Canada, an Indigenous-owned and -operated bank, is looking to expand in Eeyou Istchee by opening a new banking centre in Whapmagoostui in May, after Goose Break.

The news comes after CIBC recently closed its branch in Chisasibi, where the FNBC has been operating for over 20 years.

Frankie Dick of the Whapmagoostui Eeyou Enterprise Development Corporation says it’s important to have FNBC coming to the community. “We never had a full bank in the community,” he said.

That’s why many locals don’t have bank accounts, Dick explained. “We run a local store in the community, and when we have the situation where we have to pay suppliers, we have to set up cheques and money orders through other banks. Now we can do it the same day instead of it taking a week.”

According to Dick, the community had asked for a bank, and FNBC was willing to open an office in the community.

FNBC President and CEO Keith Martell cautioned that it wouldn’t be a full branch, however. FNBC will operate a community banking centre, which will offer most of the same services.

Martell is originally from Waterhen Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan and now lives in Saskatoon, where FNBC is headquartered.

Since the bank was incorporated in 1996, it has slowly spread to a number of Indigenous communities and urban centres across the country. Its second branch opened in Chisasibi in 1998.

Martell says that FNBC in Saskatchewan managing land claim settlements in the 1990s, which led to them suddenly having large sums of money to invest. Mainstream banks had little interest in working with them up to that point.

After that, they talked to other groups, including representatives of the James Bay Cree, who all agreed on the need for an Indigenous-run bank that understood how to lend and work with Indigenous communities.

FNBC partnered with Toronto-Dominion, which originally owned 80% of the bank, with First Nations owning 20%. Now Indigenous groups own over 80% of the bank, with TD owning the remainder.

“We’re not just focused on the bottom line, but also sustainable operations that put services needed in communities,” Martell said.

He noted that the Cree had had discussions of founding their own bank at that time, but instead decided to partner with FNBC.

According to Martell, Chisasibi members were dissatisfied with the existing bank in the community – most of the literature was only available in French, they weren’t accruing interest on deposit accounts, and there was a lack of cultural understanding.

The Cree eventually became one of the largest shareholders, owning nearly a quarter of the bank today. Matthew Coon Come served on the original board of directors, while Bill Namagoose has served on the board since 2002, and is the current non-executive chair of the board.

Martell says it’s important to know that “we have very active shareholders, board members and customers from the James Bay Cree region.”

FNBC does have an agency in Nemaska, but it offers limited services. Down the road it will become a community-banking centre as in Whapmagoostui.

That means clients will be able to open accounts, have access to most services, but credit services will be directed to Chisasibi, the only full branch in Eeyou Istchee.

FNBC also works to promote financial literacy in communities by talking to organizations, schools and Elders, while also arranging financing and donating staff time for local events.

As a chartered bank, Martell says FNBC is able to support small business and First Nations government, including large capital projects such as gaming operations, hotels, hydro developments and transmissions lines.

Without a bank in the community, “It’s hard for businesses and corporations to have access to those services,” said Dick. “It’s important that we have our own bank.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.