Trudeau's Liberals have a choice to make: support the big banks or give postal banking a chance

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Wednesday January 18 2017

A rally for postal banking in Ottawa, May 5, 2016

A rally for postal banking in Ottawa, May 5, 2016

It's been a wild ride for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers over the past couple of years. After we mobilized with the public to beat back the Harper Conservatives' planned demolition of door-to-door delivery, our union then faced a tough round of negotiations with the Conservative-appointed managers of Canada Post. At the same time, the newly-elected Liberals began a review of the post office that complicated matters enormously by holding public consultations on the future of the post office at the same time we faced a highly publicized lockout designed to keep everybody's minds on a manufactured crisis and a fabricated 'need' for cuts.

In this political context, the fact that at least some of the CUPW's proposals for service expansion are being recommended in "The Way Forward for Canada Post," the Report of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, should be regarded as a victory. Among the recommendations are: restoring door-to-door delivery from the start of the 2015 federal election; using the post office as a community hub and delivering new services such as broadband and wireless. These are all positives, although they do not go far enough. Home delivery, for example, should be restored to everybody who has lost it, period. There is also no mention of restoring Food Mail, the Canada Post service that was scrapped for the Conservatives' disastrous 'Nutrition North' program. And the idea of postal banking is conspicuous by its absence.

Both at the negotiating table and at the review hearings, postal workers and our allies have been advocating for the return of banking at the post office as a way to keep Canada Post viable while expanding its capacity to offer services that are both wanted and badly needed. In many other countries across the world, postal banking ensures financial inclusion, offering bank accounts and access to credit to lower-income and marginalized people. In Canada, many rural and remote areas lack bank branches, many are forced to turn to payday lenders that charge exorbitant fees, and the major banks themselves gouge us every day, forcing us to pay some of the highest fees in the world at ATMs and elsewhere. There's no reason for the big banks to be overcharging us this much for their services; collectively, they raked in profits of $35 billion in 2015.

Postal banking isn't there to enrich greedy bankers or predatory lenders. Instead, it reinvests its profits back into our post office, therefore into our communities, and even plays a more overt social role. For example, in France, la Banque Postale funds social housing. Here in Canada, allies have proposed that postal banking could help finance greening initiatives at the community level. This is the kind of forward-looking, visionary proposal that we need, one that is moreover supported by hundreds of municipalities and thousands of Canadians.

And yet, reading the "Way Forward for Canada Post" report, one would never know that postal banking could work for us. The Task Force in phase 1 of the postal review just scoffed at the idea and the parliamentary committee has dismissed it (with the NDP dissenting). Despite the fact that Canada had a postal bank for a century (the legislation is still on the books) and that postal clerks still process moneygrams and other financial transactions, banking services are no longer considered a "core strength" by management. People who will never have to worry about their finances keep telling us that we're just fine, that we're well served by the big banks and by outfits such as Cash Money, whose CEO testified at the parliamentary hearings.

For years now, we've been calling for Canada Post's secret banking study to be released. It would seem that eventually the parliamentarians did get to look at it for a limited period of time. Perhaps ironically, it is in the pages of the Conservatives' dissenting report where one can find the most insight into who or what is killing postal banking as an option. It says: "The Committee saw evidence of a push to form relationships between CPC and financial institutions in 2010, but this was not met with enthusiasm by the banking sector. This sentiment was expressed clearly by the banking representatives when they testified before the Committee." In other words, "stay off our turf," as the Canadian Bankers Association publicly said.

Clearly, the banking and predatory lenders' lobby has so far prevailed in holding its "turf" by excluding the possibility of a public bank for Canadians as an alternative to getting gouged. But the big banks must not be allowed to foreclose on our possibilities. As the Liberal government prepares to make its decisions about our post office this coming April, it's up to us to insist that we want a public postal bank to be part of the way forward.

*This blog also appears on the Huffington Post Canada site.