Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins: A Unique Financial Institution

By Yvon Poirier
Originally published in the International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development.

Operating under the relatively traditional legal status of financial institutions, and within the Québéc statutory framework, the Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins (Desjardins Solidarity Credit Union) is one of the rare savings and credit co-operatives to use the financial framework to develop the social and solidarity economy. But anchoring itself in collective action and dreams does not make it an amateur! Within the Desjardins network, the Caisse ranks number one as a group credit union and 49th of some 550 Desjardins Credit Unions in terms of average assets. 97% of all funds lent by this credit union over the years, were fully reimbursed, which makes it the best performing financial institution in Quebec in this regard.

But what makes it such a unique financial institution is its networking. The Caisse is one of the economic development organizations, established through the CSN initiative (Confédération des syndicats nationaux), the second biggest trade union confederation in Quebec. Together, the three most important organizations, the Caisse, the Fondaction Workers Fund and the National Union retirement Committee of Bâtirente channel assets of $1.3 billion (850 ? million) annually. In addition to the fact that they were all created by the CSN, these institutions jointly share the same vision of sustainable and solidarity development centered on workers' and communities' participation.

Origins

Union militants of the CSN founded this credit union in 1971 in Quebec City. Apart from meeting their needs for a financial institution, it targeted social transformation. It later amalgamated with two other credit unions, also founded by the trade unions. It is useful to know that in Quebec, a credit union is territorial, whereas a group credit union is linked to the employees from one or more organizations. Its activity extends throughout the territory of Quebec, the second biggest province of Canada.

Mission and Vision

Due to its social mission, many organizations and community associations, either cultural or co-operative became members over the years. At the end of 2006, the Caisse had 2,500 collective members (non-profit businesses, co-operatives, community organizations and unions) as well as 7,137 individual members (usually employees of the collective members). It is important to stress that there is no restriction to becoming a member of this type of credit union by buying shares, contrary to the example of the United Kingdom where this possibility is restricted to individual members only. However the same principle of "one member - one vote" applies, even if it is an organization or an important business.

In the 2006 Annual Report, the Caisse affirms its vision:

"The four founding options of our organization are living together, ecology, solidarity and democracy."

These four options constitute both the pillars that provide the basic momentum of our action and the end-objectives on which the vision of the society to which we aspire are founded and to which we aim to contribute. We propose to fundamentally measure wealth with the following criteria: democracy, solidarity, the respect for living beings in their environment, and our capacity to accommodate others, respectful of their difference. This is how we see sustainable solidarity development for our society.

In this vision, economic action is resituated in its rightful place of being secondary compared with human objectives - economy should serve more fundamental projects both for us as human beings, and for our planet.

The Caisse's Entrepreneurial Spirit

The spirit of entrepreneurship guiding us is grounded in deep human and social motivation. Its principal nature is not primarily to start businesses, but rather to solve problems. It is an entrepreneurship which tries to establish justice, which aims to solve the problem of poverty as well as the problem of development and which tries to provide answers to human needs. When we consider the current state of the world, with its immense economic and social challenges, we believe that only a spirit of entrepreneurship of this nature is able to convey the high and generous values required to generate adequate and sustainable solutions.

The Commitment of the Caisse Towards Its Community

Beyond service provision to its members, its Aid Fund for Community Development openly demonstrates the commitment of the Caisse to the community and to society. Like all credit unions, it sets aside sums for donations and partnerships. But, what basically distinguishes this credit union from the others is how members use their surplus from operations. In almost all other credit unions, the practice is to distribute a rebate to members (in proportion to their financial activity). However, since its creation, members have voted in their annual general meetings to forego this rebate. In this way in 2006, the Caisse devoted over $800,000 to community development based on the fundamental principles stated above, bringing the total devoted by the Caisse to its mission of solidarity economy to more than $1.2 million for the entire year.

Some Exemplary Actions

The Caisse has constantly innovated in several spheres of activity. For example, this credit union is highly recognized in the field of culture. In this respect, the leaders of the credit union are proud to recall that they granted a first loan to the two young people who created the Cirque du Soleil. The Caisse is also the financial institution of the Federation of the 14 Inuit Co-operatives of Nunavik (the northern part of Quebec). In the context of establishing a territorial government, the Caisse is currently collaborating in the setting up of an independent financial institution in Nunavik.

Finally, the Caisse works for the development of solidarity finance at international level. It has an active partnership with Banca Etica in Italy and is member of INAISE (International Association of Investors in the Social Economy). They have jointly participated in projects in Brazil.

Like any institution, the Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins is the product of its own society. In this sense, it is unique and cannot be reproduced as such elsewhere. Nevertheless, its solidarity practice can provide inspiration in the field of finance.

Internet Resources

www.cecosol.coop For more on the Caisse d'économie solidaire Desjardins (website in French)
www.fondaction.com For more on the Fondaction Workers Fund (website in French)
www.bancaetica.com For more on the "popular bank" Bank Etica in Italy. (website in multiple languages)

 

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