Scotiabank closes only bank in town; refuses to say why

What is the robbing of a bank
compared to the founding of a bank?”
— Bertolt Brecht —

SCOTIABANK IS NOT BIG ON COMMUNITY. If it was it wouldn’t be closing its branch in the small town of Pemberton, B.C. on July 15. But it is. And it won’t say why.

The Pemberton Scotiabank branch has been a “pillar of the community” for 63 years. The January 6 announcement of its closing came “out of the blue”. Everybody in town was shocked. Many were angry. They expected better from “their” bank. They shouldn’t have. It’s always a mistake to expect business to put people first.

Residents petition bank

Natalie Livermore started a petition urging Scotiabank to keep the branch open on the same day the bank announced the branch closing. About 3,100 people live in Pemberton. The petition has almost 2,400 signatures.

David MacKenzie, her neighbour organized a letter campaign and a rally in front of the bank a week later.

The residents’ efforts to save the bank are driven by two issues: first, a personal concern about how and where they will get their own banking done; second, a community concern about the potential damage to the business life in the town, once there is no bank.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic speeds up the move to digital banking, poor internet connectivity in rural, remote and Indigenous communities threatens to leave these areas behind and force many to travel for hours to access basic financial services. The closest Scotiabank to Pemberton is 40 kilometres to the south in Whistler.

Business lost to Whistler

After more than a year of surviving COVID-19’s devastating economic impact, MacKenzie is angry that his business will soon incur new operation costs, mainly transportation, due to the bank closure.

He also worries that people who travel to Whistler will spend money there, hurting businesses that have counted on Pemberton’s role as a hub for shopping and services.

“I don’t think people will realize this trickle-down effect until the bank is gone,” he said.

Scotiabank said that it will leave a full-service bank machine in Pemberton. The bank has also promised Pemberton funds to buy 10 laptops for the local library to help residents access online banking

A persistent lag in internet connectivity for many rural, remote and Indigenous communities makes online banking even less accessible than a distant bank branch.

Many also pointed out that there is a generational gap where most seniors simply prefer in-branch banking and banks still recognize it as “a valued method.”

Credit union possibilities

There is a credit union, BlueShore Financial, in Pemberton. Branch manager Holly Hetherington says the credit union is ready to step in and provide  people with all the services they were used to getting from Scotiabank.

Fraser Lake Mayor Sarrah Storey thinks Pemberton  should give credit unions a chance.

In 2019, Forest Lake, lost its one CIBC branch. Poor internet connections made online banking unreliable. Many residents had no choice but  to drive 45 minutes to two hours just to get to the nearest bank.

A credit union opened in Forest Lake last year. Storey says the credit union has been “really helpful” and committed to “putting down roots” in the village.

Forty per cent of British Columbians already bank with credit unions. Credit unions serve as the only financial institution in 37 communities in B.C.

People take it personally

The response of small communities to a branch closure is often “visceral” and very personal says Sean Markey, professor of planning at Simon Fraser University.

“Whenever there’s a business closure like that, people try to figure out what it means,” he said. “Is our autonomy in trouble? Is our community in trouble?”

“There’s a history here," says Meredith Kemp, executive director of the Pemberton & District Chamber of  Commerce. "The bank's beem a pillar of our community.

“They’re our friends and neighbours. It’s a big loss not to have that here in town.”

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