Charting a Credit Union Path to Economic Reconciliation

national day of truth and reconciliation with a maple leaf in white text on an orange background
Contributing Writer

12 minutes

Canadian CUs work to meet needs of Indigenous populations.

This story was written while at my home in Campbellford, Ontario, which is on the traditional lands of the Wendake-Nionwentsïo, Mississauga and Anishinabewaki nations and is covered by Rice Lake Treaty 20, which was signed in 1818.

That’s not the usual way to start a story and capture your attention, but it seems like the only way to introduce an article about how Canadian credit unions are dealing with reconciliation and the growing economic and demographic importance of the Indigenous people who live here.

In recent years, such land acknowledgements have become common, expected and the minimum recognition of the debt current residents owe to those who were here for 40,000 years before we arrived.

Over the past decade, many credit unions have taken steps to reach out to their Indigenous communities, and on September 30, many closed their branches and offices to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, even though it was officially a federal holiday that only applied to banks and other federally-regulated businesses. 

There are two elements to reconciliation efforts. One is focused on symbolism, cultural understanding and inclusion, while the other, newer approach focuses more on the business side and what banking services credit unions can provide to help Indigenous communities thrive and prosper.

In her new book, Indigenomics: Taking at seat at the economic table, Carol Anne Hinton argues that a long series of more than 285 legal wins over the past 20 years have dramatically changed the economic prospects for Indigenous people across Canada. The legal challenges have given them a say in resource development and set the stage for them to take control of their lives.

“It is through economic reconciliation that Indigenous peoples are creating a seat at the modern economic table,” she writes.  “In the power shift that no one saw coming, today over 20% of Canada’s land base is controlled directly by Indigenous peoples, either through settlements or self-governance agreements.”

In her book, Hinton explores the different approach to economics that is traditional to Indigenous peoples. It is one based on strong relations with others in their communities and protecting the environment. It is far from the individualist, capitalist system that most of us operate in today and has many of the attributes of a cooperative system.

“Reconciliation cannot be a feel-good exercise or resolved within a talking circle,” Hinton writes. “The outcomes of reconciliation must produce Indigenous socio-economic well-being. If it cannot do that, then it is not reconciliation.”

Shannin Metatawabin
National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association
Credit unions have a great service to provide Indigenous people as far as reconciliation goes. Our people have always had a barrier to accessing financial services.

There is a similar message from Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, Ottawa, Ontario, the umbrella organization for a network of 59 Aboriginal Financial Institutions across Canada.

Over the last 30 years, the AFI network has provided nearly $3 billion in loans to support economic development and meet the needs of 50,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises in Indigenous communities across Canada.

Metatawabin suggests any credit union that is looking to help local Indigenous people should start by developing a relationship with the Aboriginal Financial Institution in its area. He also suggests his group and the Canadian Credit Union Association should look for ways to work together. Martha Durdin, CCUA’s president and chief executive officer, says she’s open to the idea and it’s something they should investigate.

“Credit unions have a great service to provide Indigenous people as far as reconciliation goes,” Metatawabin says. “Our people have always had a barrier to accessing financial services.”

Those barriers remain, with people who live on reserves forced to turn to third- and fourth-tier lenders and pay up to 25% interest on loans for their trucks, Metatawabin says.

In January, his group expects to make the first loans from its $150 million Indigenous Growth Fund, which was initially funded by the federal government and the Business Development Bank of Canada. Metatawabin says some credit unions have expressed interest in supporting the fund as it expands to provide loans for larger, more complex business deals.

But for true economic reconciliation to occur, Indigenous communities first need to be able to meet their basic needs, Metatawabin says, noting that poorly educated people living in sub-standard housing without clean water are focused on surviving, not business opportunities.

“There’s no future prosperity for Canada without Indigenous prosperity,” he says, encouraging credit unions to attend his association’s Indigenous Prosperity Forum next May in Ottawa to learn how they can get involved.

Meeting the Needs of Indigenous People

In 2015, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report with 94 recommendations to redress the legacy of residential schools. Recommendation No. 92 asks the corporate sector to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The commission calls for meaningful consultation, sustainable economic development projects, as well as education and training for managers on the history of Indigenous people, intercultural competency, human rights and anti-racism.

Many credit unions are taking steps to meet those calls and to meet the needs of Indigenous people, but they are moving carefully to ensure they listen and don’t misstep.

For example, Liz Arkinstall, corporate social responsibility manager at $5.2 billion Libro Credit Union with 109,000 members based in London, Ontario, says her organization is in the learning phase, gathering information from the community as it plans to step up its efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion, including reconciliation efforts.

“We absolutely recognize the importance behind truth and reconciliation and the role that businesses play,” Arkinstall says. “We’ve made a recommitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and we’ve created a new grassroots working group and added a ton of information to our learning portal and intranet so staff can learn more.”

Libro CU closed its operations on Sept. 30 and encouraged all staff to take a course on Aboriginal issues as part of its long-term commitment to meet the reconciliation commission’s call to action. In addition, executives and front-line staff spent a day at a Chippewa reserve to get to know people there better. It has also offered the Each One, Teach One financial literacy course to that community. 

Nicole Westerlund, VP/member and community engagement at $6.8 billion Conexus Credit Union, with 155,000 members based in Regina, Saskatchewan, says her credit union is “committed to standing with Indigenous community members and learning and working through true acts of reconciliation. As an organization, we‘re focused on learning right now, and it‘s a really vulnerable position to be in to admit to ourselves and our employees and our members that we are in the learning and understanding phase.”

Westerlund says Conexus CU is “making these very big commitments to ourselves and to our members that this is where we’re going as an enterprise.”

The credit union is working with local communities to determine what needs to be done “instead of us just deciding for ourselves what the right approach is.” The pause and slower pace have been unusual for an organization that “tends to be moving forward very quickly.”

Nicole Westerlund
VP/Member and Community Engagement
Conexus Credit Union
asset size — $6.8 billion
Conexus Credit Union is committed to standing with Indigenous community members and learning and working through true acts of reconciliation. As an organization we’re focused on learning right now, and it’s a really vulnerable position to be in to admit to ourselves and our employees and our members that we are in the learning and understanding phase.

Conexus CU has offered all employees and all founders and teams involved in its business incubator, Cultivator, the chance to take a course called “The Four Seasons of Reconciliation,” produced by the First Nations University of Canada. The online program, which takes about three hours to complete, is now part of its routine onboarding process for all new employees.

Employees have also had access to online resources on the company intranet and online discussions. “The conversation has been very positive, emotional and enlightening,” Westerlund says. “You can see different conversations between employees and comments from people who have actually not shared their Indigenous background because they haven’t felt comfortable, and they are proud of their organization bringing this forward and making this available.”

This understanding is particularly important in Saskatchewan where about 16% of the population is Indigenous, a share that is expected to soon hit 20%, the highest of any province.

Over the past couple of years, Conexus CU has helped two local organizations that serve Indigenous people—The Circle Project and Ignite Learning—by donating to them the buildings of branches it was closing. The Circle Project, which provides day care and other social services, made an offer to purchase one building and was surprised when Conexus CU signed the offer back, lowering the price to $10. This has allowed the organization to use its money to renovate and expand the building. The other branch was donated to Ignite, an adult training organization that serves a largely Indigenous clientele.

Conexus CU is also looking for ways to make branches less intimidating and more welcoming, particularly to people who may have had bad experiences in the past, and to ensure its digital offerings are also accessible to everyone.

“We’re really trying to shift our perspective to see the different kind of supports that we need to offer,” Westerlund says, “how we can be part of that solution and work differently with community organizations to better understand the best approach, whether it’s lending or day-to-day banking.”

Assiniboine CU Educates Employees

Lisa Delorme Meiler is a graphic designer at $5.6 billoin Assiniboine Credit Union with 124,000 members and based in Winnipeg. She is a member of its Indigenous Leadership Circle, a handful of self-identified Indigenous employees who, since 2017, have spearheaded an effort to provide education and experiences to all staff so they can learn about Indigenous culture.

“The mission for the ILC is to use our collective knowledge and experience to provide leadership and reconciliation,” she says. “The structure of our circle is we don’t have a chair or vice chair, it’s a coalition of willing and active participants who make decisions together.”

The idea for the circle came from an employee who had been involved with something similar while in high school. She suggested it would be valuable for Assiniboine CU’s employees, and the executive team agreed. The circle group also coordinates an online reconciliation hub that is a safe place for employees to ask questions and participate in conversations.

“We try to create events that are engaging for employees to participate in,” says Delorme Meiler. One example is the Kairos blanket exercise, which is an effective way to demonstrate how Indigenous people were pushed into smaller and smaller areas.

“We also encourage employees to do their own personal journey and personal acts of reconciliation,” she says.

Lisa Delorme Meiler
Graphic Designer
Assiniboine Credit Union
asset size — $5.6 billion
The mission for the ILC is to use our collective knowledge and experience to provide leadership and reconciliation. The structure of our circle is we don’t have a chair or vice chair, it’s a coalition of willing and active participants who make decisions together.

“ACU has also worked to strengthen and expand community partnerships with Indigenous organizations that refer individuals to our credit union for access to financial services and provide support to them in gaining the identification required to open accounts,” says Brendan Reimer, strategic partner/values-based banking at Assiniboine CU.

Vancity Seeks Independent Verification

Vancity Credit Union, with more than $30 billion in assets and 555,000 members, is one of the credit unions farthest along the reconciliation journey, having made reconciliation a core organization value in 2015. But it, too, is reviewing its progress, strategy and approach. 

“We’ve taken a moment to step back with a little bit of humility and self-reflection to say: What are we doing well and what do we need to do better?” says Jonathan Fowlie, chief external relations officer at the credit union.

It has decided to add a new senior role “to focus on bringing together all Vancity’s efforts to make sure that we are offering the best possible services to our Indigenous members and communities.”

Vancity also is turning to an outside group to help guide and support the next phase of its reconciliation progress. It has signed on to the Progressive Aboriginal Relations certification program run by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and is in the early stages of having its efforts analyzed.

“We felt it would be a good step to help identify the most impactful opportunities and add a bit more rigor to the work, and also to hold ourselves accountable to that recognized framework,” Fowlie says.

The program provides an independent, third-party verification process of company reports on four performance areas: leadership actions, employment, business development and community relationships. These reports are then reviewed by an independent jury of Indigenous business leaders who assign the final certification level—gold, silver or bronze.

In addition, Vancity has worked with Indigenous communities to build financial resilience and support affordable housing projects. In addition, it changed requirements so that its services are more inclusive to Indigenous people who don’t have readily available IDs.

The CU has created the Wealth Mindset-Indigenous Financial Resilience program to meet the unique needs and strengths of Indigenous learners and communities. The financial education program integrates content and methodologies relevant to Indigenous peoples. It recently started training staff and will roll the program out to communities in the new year.

Vancity says the purpose of the program is to create a safe learning experience that is compelling for Indigenous peoples. The program builds upon Vancity’s Each One, Teach One curriculum, which was developed to support diverse communities and integrates content and methodologies relevant to Indigenous peoples.  

Resilience is a skill developed by Indigenous people who have survived and recovered from difficulties caused by oppression. The Wealth Mindset-Indigenous Financial Resilience program seeks to harness the resulting empowerment and focus it on financial wellness so that individuals can withstand life’s financial challenges, such as unemployment or health issues.

The financial resilience program will help Indigenous people thrive so they can take advantage of the greater economic success that seems to be coming their way. cues icon

Art Chamberlain is a writer from Campbellford, Ontario, who focuses on credit union stories.

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