In Northern Canada, a taste of postal banking

Panoramic image of a post office on the coast of Newfoundland

Photo credit: Dianne Parsons, CPAA member, Pouch Cove post office, Newfoundland and Labrador

Nain, the northernmost permanent settlement in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, is home to just enough people to support a few stores, a lodge and a common sight in Canada’s rural communities: the post office. Until recently, the Nain Canada Post branch offered banking services through the Bank of Montreal. This pilot project was originally going to last two years: instead it continued for 17. Canada Post eventually put an end to the cohabitation, but thanks to strong community support, BMO opened its own branch in the community.

Residents of Moose Factory, Ont., haven’t been so lucky. From 1999 to 2007, Moose Factory, a northern community of a couple thousand residents, experienced a taste of postal banking when the Bank of Montreal was housed in the local post office. Eventually, it closed. Records and accounts were moved to Timmins, over 300 kilometers away and inaccessible by road (a one-way plane fare runs over $400).

Across the river lies Moosonee, the Gateway to the Arctic. Moosonee, a majority Cree community, is home to the Railcar Museum, and visitors to the community can enjoy beluga whale and seal watching on the Moose River. Moosonee also houses a CIBC branch. There’s no bridge between the two communities; in the summer, Moose Factory residents pay $15 for a boat taxi to take them there. In the winter, light vehicles can take an ice road; the taxi fare is around $10. During spring and fall, helicopter is the only safe option. The journey is a long and expensive one. Many travelers have to stay overnight in Moosonee. Transport, lodging, meals: going to the bank is no walk in the park.

What about Internet banking? Sadly, many rural communities lack reliable internet service and some don’t have cellphone reception (Nain didn’t until mid-2014). Moreover, many useful banking services, including cashing cheques and opening an account, can still, for most people, only be accessed offline. Rural Canada is gravely underserved by Internet service providers, another opportunity for Canada Post to step in.

The big banks have long abandoned rural, northern and Indigenous communities. 1,700 bank branches and hundreds of credit union branches have closed over the last two decades, leaving behind individual clients and rural businesses. Meanwhile, the red and blue post office logo is still displayed proudly on rural Canada's main street. About 85% of Canada Post's almost 4000 outlets are located in rural areas. Why not leverage this near-ubiquity to offer accessible banking services to all Canadians?

If you live in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, your nearest bank might be a short walk away. In rural Canada, including thousands of Indigenous communities, it can take hours of travelling to open an account, get a loan, and deposit and withdraw cash and cheques. Isolated pilot projects in Moose Factory and Nain fell short of perfection, yet they proved how badly rural communities need access to the services most Canadians take for granted. When implementing postal banking on a wider scale, Canada Post should look to Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere to consider the successes of public postal banking system.

It shouldn’t take a helicopter ride to go to the bank. Postal banking pilot projects provided useful services for remote and rural communities but these communities need permanent and stable banking services. The post office can deliver them. In 2016, every Canadian has a right to a bank account. Canada Post can make that a reality.