Legacy of Alphonse Desjardins inspires WOCCU conference

The city of Ottawa has a special significance for delegates to this week's World Credit Union Conference: it's where Alphonse Desjardins first came up with the idea to...

To most visitors to Ottawa, it's Canada's capital, best known for its Parliament Buildings, museums and the Rideau Canal. 

But for delegates to the World Credit Union Conference, taking place in Ottawa from July 14-17, it has a special significance: it's the city where Alphonse Desjardins, the father of the North American credit union movement, got the inspiration  to create the continent's first financial co-operative nearly 113 years ago.

A native of Lévis, Quebec. across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, Desjardins came to Ottawa in 1892 to work as a stenographer in the House of Commons. During a parliamentary debate on the devastating impact of loan-sharking on farmers and the working class, he came up with the idea of creating a caisse populaire — a people's bank — similar to those that were already operating in Germany with great success.

Back in Lévis, he shared the idea with his friends and neighbours, and on December 6, 1900, 100 people gathered to create the Caisse populaire de Lévis. Desjardins and his wife Dorimène opened the Caisse for business on January 23, 1901 — the first deposit was for 10 cents. 

But the significance of Ottawa to the credit union movement does not end there.  Desjardins rreturned to his job in Ottawa, leaving the Caisse in the capable hands of Dorimène.  Realizing that a member-owned financial institution would be useful for public servants, he founded the Civil Service Savings and Loan Society in 1908. Later renamed the CS Co-op, it was the first financial co-operative outside Quebec and the first in English-speaking North America.  Today, the CS Co-op lives on as  Alterna Savings, Ottawa's largest credit union, located just a few blocks away from the convention centre where nearly 2,400 credit union leaders are meeting this week. And even closer to the convention centre is the Caisse populaire Rideau d'Ottawa, which is part of Desjardins Group, today the fifth largest co-operative financial group in the world. 

The significance of Alphonse Desjardins — and Ottawa —  to the history of the credit union movement was not lost on speakers at the World Conference.  David Phillips, president and CEO of Credit Union Central of Canada, encouraged WOCCU delegates to retrace the steps of Alphonse Desjardins as they explored the capital city.  And Bill Cheney, president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) in the United States, reminded conference participants that it was Desjardins who helped a group in Manchester, New Hampshire to organize the first U.S. credit union in 1909., with the support of a prominent Boston merchant, Edward Filene.  Desjardins and Filene also worked with Massachusette banking commissioner Pierre Jay to draft what was to become the first state credit union legislation in the United States.

The World Credit Union Conference continues until July 17 



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