On loving our community

My mother became a Credit Union manager quite by accident.

My father had gone to the local bank to borrow two hundred dollars to finance his commercial fishing for the fall season. The bank turned him down. The bank manager was quite straight forward about the reason. He said it wasn’t his job to lend out money but, rather, to collect it so it could be sent to Toronto to be loaned out by the banks there.

Although the local manager was polite, the attitude of the banking system was right there, in my father’s face, as we’d say nowadays. There was the Eastern contempt for the western Canada, contempt for small businesses, contempt for rural people. We were the suckers standing in front of the carnival tent with the huckster carny man giving the pitch to separate us from our money, the medicine man standing on the back of his wagon extolling the virtues of his medicine that would cure everything but, in actuality, would cure nothing, the immigration agent taking our money and disappearing with it, the companies selling us mouldy grain and rotten canvas tents.

It was all there. “A lousy two hundred dollars,” my father said. He wanted the two hundred dollars so he wouldn’t have to borrow it from a fish company. If he borrowed money from a fish company, then he had to sell them his fish for the coming fishing season. That meant they set the prices. He couldn’t sell to the fish company that was offering the best price. Dealing in a perishable product, he was trapped in a system that was a remnant of the medieval system of the indentured servant.

He joined the Credit Union board. It had, if I remember correctly, no more than a few thousand dollars. It was run from a local home. When the person taking care of the books said he couldn’t do it anymore, my father brought the books home and asked my mother to take care of them for two weeks. That two weeks stretched into twenty years.

At first, she had office hours one afternoon a week, then a day a week, then two days a week, then the Credit Union put a safe into the house. The number of days increased. Deposits increased.

Finally, my father said he’d build a commercial building and rent out part of it to the Credit Union. He was a do-it-himself kind of guy. He’d had one business, a laundry, go bankrupt on him, and he’d learned to keep costs down. He bought a corner lot through which a creek ran. People said no one could build on that piece of property. He had culverts put in. He had a friend who was an engineer who drew up the plans. He and my father bought salvaged steel beams. They sub-contracted work. The metal safe in the house was replaced with a vault in the new building.

My mother learned on the job. Good people helped her. She attended meetings and conventions. In the early days, she was the only woman at the conventions. That was hard.

But what lay behind her decisions as a manager was love of community. She’d been an only child and was often lonely. When she’d married my father and moved to Gimli, a small, rural village supported by commercial fishing, an airbase, summer tourists, mixed farming, she said she was never lonely again. She was absorbed first by my father’s large, extended family, then by the community itself.

She saw her role, the credit union’s role, as helping local people. She never forgot the bank’s refusal of the two hundred dollars to my father. Someone once said to her, you have all that money and she replied, it’s not my money. She did not see the credit union or her role as a manager as a way to make herself rich. She would have dismissed the idea that “greed is good” as no more than an attempt by the greedy to justify their selfish actions. Greed is only good to those people who do not love their community.

She saw herself as a custodian. Her job was to do what was best for depositors while, at the same time, do what was best for borrowers. That meant being sure that people could afford what they were buying, could make the payments. It sometimes meant providing business advice, particularly for people wanting to start a local business. Her job was to  help others, not herself.

There were no get rich quick schemes. No loaning out as much money as possible to anyone who applied so that she could get a commission or bonus. She worked for her salary. The profits belonged to the credit union members. There were no liar loans. There was no bundling of crappy mortgages and selling them off to unsuspecting businesses or individuals so that more crappy loans and mortgages could be made to increase the size of her commission.

She was just a credit union manager in a small town but she stood and stands head and shoulders above all the bankers in North America and Europe who have been so driven by greed that they’ve placed the entire banking system in jeopardy, all the bankers who have looted their banks, who have speculated with their depositor’s money.

A small town credit union manager with ethics. Something nowadays it seems impossible to find among the wreckage of arcane financial instruments, of billion dollar losses, of obscene bonuses paid with money that should go to stockholders.

Head and shoulders over these greedy bankers? She retired with enough money to keep her in comfort in a small town way. A three bedroom bungalow. An older car. Money in the bank to cover daily expenses and to make a trip to visit her son each Christmas. It would have been good if she’d have had a pension for her twenty years but there were no pensions in such small places in those days. She and my father managed on their savings and their investments. Head and shoulders and more.

Would people have admired her more if she had ripped off the credit union by changing the rules so she got a commission on loans and then pushed out as much money as possible, selling off the mortgages and starting over and over again? Some would, I guess. There are people in our society who worship Mammon. Who believe that greed is good and, if they get a chance, are as greedy as possible, who have no sense of responsibility to their family, friends, neighbours, community.

Her ceremony at the Lutheran church yesterday was simple. Three of us spoke about her life. A friend sang a hymn. We all joined together in singing two hymns. Her ashes were in a pottery urn, beside it a picture of her when she first came to Gimli. They were flanked by two simple vases with a few flowers.

People came on this warm Saturday, they came in spite of it being Canada Day, in spite of it being the municipality’s 125 anniversary. Her grandchildren came and her great grandchildren.

We gathered at the graveyard under a blue prairie sky with white floating islands of clouds. The minister said a prayer, scattered some earth as he said ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The undertaker put the urn in a red velvet bag and placed it in the hole that had been prepared in my mother’s mother’s grave. The graveyard is on the edge of farmland, at the juncture of the original pioneer road and Highway 9. There are glimpses of Lake Winnipeg to the East. To the West are the gravel ridges of pioneer hardship.

The graveyard isn’t old but it is old enough that my Icelandic great grandparents are buried there. They came to the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1876 with the first Icelandic settlers. My mother, as Irish as Irish can be, her parents both from Northern Ireland, slipped into this Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Native community and made it her own. Her ashes and the bodies of her parents rest here, a long way from Ireland, a long way from the Mountains of Mourne but they share their resting place with the people who were part of their new Canadian life.

She loved Canada, this town and the people in it and, for a lifetime, she did what she thought was best for everyone.