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Common Bonds: A History of Greater Vancouver Community Credit Union

By Patrick A Dunae

Review By Lani Russwurm

March 10, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 172-173

The credit union movement in British Columbia is, in a way, a legacy of the Great Depression. When banks and governments were unwilling or unable to respond appropriately to economic crisis, mutual aid arrangements became essential for many people during the thirties and in rebuilding their lives in the post-war years. Legislation in the late 1930s formalized financial cooperatives, or credit unions, which then took off in the 1940s. While today credit unions are professionally run and established financial institutions, in the early days they were operated by volunteer amateurs who often conducted business around a kitchen table or in a church basement. Patrick Dunae’s Common Bonds: A History of the Greater Vancouver Community Credit Union charts the almost eight decade-long growth of the credit union system into a major BC industry that manages over $65 billion in assets and boasts over two million members, including me.

Credit unions can be seen as part of the larger cooperative movement in which working people pool resources to help themselves and their neighbours better their lives. They allow people with stable employment but few assets to obtain mortgages, bank loans, and other financial services that otherwise might elude them, on the principle that the health of the communities served is the raison d’etre of credit unions rather than shareholder profits. With a more human-centric mandate than banks, credit unions also routinely lend support to community cultural and sporting events and non-profit and charitable initiatives, and offer scholarships and bursaries to members. In this sense, Dunae’s book offers a sort of financial “history from below” of Metro Vancouver.

While the subject of Common Bonds is GVC Credit Union, one of the oldest credit union institutions in British Columbia, Dunae provides enough context to deliver it well beyond the humble promise of its title. We learn, for example, about the British, American, and Quebec antecedents that inspired and informed British Columbia’s early credit unions, as well as fun facts, for example that Vancity defiantly opened a Burnaby branch to breach the geographical constraints of its 1946 charter limiting it to Vancouver proper. That move, along with a swallowing up of smaller and faltering credit unions, allowed Vancity to become the most prominent credit union in the province.

Whereas Vancity’s “common bond” was geographic, the Greater Vancouver Community Credit Union was originally a Catholic institution, beginning life as the Rosary Credit Union in 1940. It then became the Greater Vancouver Catholic Credit Union before adopting its current secular name. Like Vancity, GVC Credit Union absorbed other credit unions, even if they didn’t share its religious affiliation, such as the BC Projectionists’ Credit Union after its parent trade union was decimated in a 1998 lockout, and thus grew beyond the narrow scope envisioned by its founders.

The book is organized around the “common bond” theme of the title, with chapters dedicated to formative, parish, occupational, ethnic, community, and cooperative bonds respectively. As the GVC and Vancity examples show, common bonds no longer rigidly confine credit unions, and Dunae skilfully maps out this trajectory. It would have been nice to see more discussion of the link between the evolution of credit unions and the broader cooperative movement. Surely the mushrooming housing and consumer cooperatives of the 1970s and 1980s influenced the direction and philosophy of credit unions, or vice versa. But maybe that’s a subject for another book.

Common Bonds is a welcome addition to British Columbia’s nearly non-existent financial historiography. It is well written and extensively researched and will be useful for social and economic historians in addition to those readers with a direct connection to GVC Credit Union.

Common Bonds: A History of Greater Vancouver Community Credit Union
Patrick A Dunae
GVC Credit Union, 2015. 100 pp. paper