Dan Wingham of Integris Credit Union poses with his signs and a box of Integris-branded mugs in the Dunster School gym. He frequently travels to connect with different communities and talk about what his credit union has to offer, he told The Goat. /ABIGAIL POPPLE

By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

With the forthcoming closure of the Scotiabank branch in McBride, residents of McBride and Dunster are exploring the possibility of joining Integris, a credit union with members throughout north central B.C. 

The closure, announced in October, means that McBride and Dunster residents who use Scotiabank will have to go to Prince George for in-person banking services come September 18th. This makes banking inconvenient at best and inaccessible at worst, say residents: for example, some seniors may not be comfortable navigating online banking services, and the two- or three-hour commute to Prince George poses difficulties for those with mobility issues.

“I live with my two elderly parents,” said Rob Mercereau, who owns properties in McBride and Dunster. “Driving in the wintertime to Prince George … you never know if there’s going to be an accident or closure.”

“Even if the over two-hour drive from McBride is not that difficult, it can be really tiring depending on the traffic conditions and the weather conditions,” he added.

In light of these concerns, Mercereau invited Dan Wingham, manager of strategic partnerships at Integris Credit Union, for a presentation at the Dunster School. Mercereau told The Goat he had seen Wingham speak at a McBride Chamber of Commerce meeting in late February, and later contacted him to ask if he could give a similar presentation in Dunster.

So on March 16th, some 50 residents of McBride and Dunster gathered over a potluck lunch to hear Wingham’s case for joining Integris. He gave attendees an overview of the differences between credit unions and banks, and outlined the next steps residents would have to take for Integris to be established in the area.

Follow the money

“The big difference [between banks and credit unions] is in two things: who makes the money, and where does the money go?” Wingham said.

He said that in traditional banks, shareholders try to extract as much value from a community as possible. If a local branch does not make enough money for shareholders to consider its operations worthwhile, then they will pull out of that community – regardless of the negative impacts on local residents.

“We’re the antithesis of that,” he said. “Our very existence is to retain the profits where they’re made so that those who contribute to them ultimately benefit by it.”

Credit unions also place an emphasis on social responsibility, Wingham said. 

“The part I oversee directly is our community enrichment strategy,” he told The Goat. “A portion of our net income profit goes back to the community by way of sponsorships, donations, initiative funding, all kinds of things.”

An uncertain future

While Integris already has a presence in McBride – having bought out Advantage Insurance to install its own insurance services last June – the establishment of Integris banking services in the area is far from a done deal. This July, the cooperative’s board will meet to make a decision as to whether they want to start a branch in McBride. After that, the union will need to find a building for its in-person services, and gradually ramp up the number of hours it is open each week. 

To put together a compelling business case for the board, Wingham said that enough residents will need to open membership accounts at Integris to demonstrate that the rest of the credit union can benefit from business in the area.

“It’s obvious that if we expand into McBride, there will be a benefit to the people in McBride and in the Robson Valley,” Wingham said in an interview with The Goat. “The question is, what is the benefit back to the other 28,000 members?”

In the meantime, Wingham said, residents should keep their accounts at Scotiabank active.

“You can open a membership for us, but please don’t shoot yourself in the foot by closing that account out at Scotia,” he said. “Keep that going as long as they’re there, whereas if you’ve got deposits or lending that can be moved without breaking that relationship, bring that because that’s the best way [you] can support the business case.”

When asked whether he had a rough estimate of how many members it would take to secure a deal with Integris, Wingham’s response was a straightforward “no.”

“Nope. We’re leaving this in people’s hands. This is a democracy, we are a democratic organization,” he told The Goat. “People in the Robson Valley need to vote with their feet […] if people commit to us, we’ll commit to them, but if they remain noncommittal, it’s tougher to get the board to a yes.”

Wingham said the same thing to David Milne, who asked for concrete numbers about how many members would need to sign up during the March 16th presentation. 

“There was a lot of information given out, but not a lot of hard facts about how the community could move from Scotiabank to Integris,” Milne told The Goat afterwards. “And they are sort of waffling on exactly how many people are going to [need to] join the bank, so I would like them to have been more forthcoming.”

Milne worries that in the worst-case scenario, residents will become reliant on Integris and then be left in the lurch should its board decide not to open a branch in McBride. Still, he said he would prefer to have the convenience of an ATM and in-person bank closer to home than the Prince George Scotiabank or the Valemount CIBC branches, and would support Integris if it can provide those services.

Wingham said he understands why people might be concerned about taking a gamble on Integris, but that banks are more likely to close operations in a community because they lack the value system that credit unions have.

“We have a couple of branches in smaller communities that are kind of like break even operations,” he said. “But we’re not pulling them, because doing so would make us no better than the banks.”

“A financial institution’s a cornerstone of a local economy. What people really need to focus on is that Scotia is actually pulling that cornerstone out, and they’re waiting for the house to fall,” Wingham added.

Dunster resident Tom MacKinnon hopes that Integris can fill in the void that Scotiabank will leave.

“People are going to be stuck,” he said. “They’ve got to have some place and institution to do their banking.”

MacKinnon, who is already an Integris member, said he has had frustrating experiences with institutions like Scotiabank and CIBC. Integris offers interest rates and services on par with big banks, he said, but is more accountable to communities given its cooperative model.

“If these guys can come in and help people, it’ll be a bonus,” he said. “I applaud these guys. I said when [the Scotiabank closure] was announced, ‘I hope Integris comes down here.’”

Mercereau told The Goat that he feels Wingham is being as transparent as possible about the process of joining Integris, and that he’s cautiously optimistic about getting enough support to build a convincing business case.

“We had like over 50 people at both of these meetings and they weren’t really well advertised,” he said, referring to the McBride Chamber of Commerce meeting and the Dunster School presentation. “I’m sure we could drum up more support if we put out the information better.”

Wingham has trips to McBride and Dunster planned over the next few months. He said that interested residents can arrange an appointment on Integris’ website.