With retina scans, new course set for inner-city banking clients

An Edmonton financial institution is the first in Canada to use biometric identification to allow clients to access their accounts. The technology is being used to help some of the city's poorest residents get financial services.

'We have to be willing to accept and be non-judgmental and just take people where they're at'

Four Directions Financial client Bryan Kenny demonstrates the biometric retina scan to ATB president and CEO Dave Mowat. (John Shypitka/CBC)

Whitford Skani likes going to a bank where the tellers know his name.

For Skani — and other clients at Four Directions Financial — good customer service is about more than pleasantries. It's about dignity, respect and, sometimes, the difference between access to an account and being left without cash.

"A couple of weeks ago, I had a two-hundred dollar cheque," says Skani, 52, who runs a small business selling dream catchers. "I come in here and I gave them the cheque, they cashed it right now, because they know me and they know it's a valid cheque. 

"They didn't ask me, 'Where did you get the cheque? How long have you had it?' "

Four Directions Financial is a partnership between ATB Financial and Boyle Street Community Services, which serves some of the city's poorest and most vulnerable people. Many clients are homeless and struggle with a perennial problem on the street: lost ID.

That's where Four Directions uses a unique-in-Canada approach. Customers can open accounts using biometric data technology, including a retina scan or a fingerprint. It's technology that is sometimes considered the future of mainstream banking, now being employed as an anti-poverty measure in Edmonton.
Marg Archibald explains that Four Directions Banking isn't just about money, but rather helping the whole customer. 0:39

Beyond the almost sci-fi retina scanner, the partnership is unique for recognizing that poor people need reliable, accessible banking. It's an operation that has few comparisons across the country, despite obvious need.

Four Directions Financial, next to the Boyle Street's drop-in program, has about 800 accounts after 18 months in operation. The shiny glass office towers of the business district, visible from its windows, seem a world away to clients who say they prefer not to travel "downtown" to bank.

Clients also say they're not judged when they come in two, three, or four times a day to withdraw $25. Tellers are trained to administer naloxone. And they don't hesitate to work with a customer who is clearly intoxicated, sometimes urging them to rethink a decision to drain their account.

On cheque day — when government assistance cheques are deposited into accounts — lineups start around 8:30 a.m. Other days, there's a steady flow of customers, some rowdy, some high, others waiting patiently to make withdrawals for things like rent or bills.
Whitford Skani, who runs a small business selling dream-catchers, banks at Four Directions Financial. (Boyle Street Community Services)

"I know everybody here. Over (at other banks) I didn't know anybody and they were giving me a rough time," says Helen Herbert.

"I can keep my money here as long as I want. And then when I need it, I just take it out."

Biometric banking 

A stolen wallet. A lost backpack. A misplaced bank card.

Several years ago, Boyle Street started an ID storage program because clients were prone to losing the government-issued identification that's vital for so many everyday transactions.

ATB Financial supported the ID program, and that was the start of the partnership that led to Canada's first biometric identification program in a bank.

"It was a lens to look at a population that wasn't being served by financial institutions," says Sandra Huculak, managing director of corporate social responsibility at ATB.

ATB started talking to people about what they wanted out of a bank, and learned that clients wanted to be treated with respect, regardless of what they look like. And they wanted to know they were getting the same secure services as anyone else.

But how to provide that to a population where many people can't hang onto basic ID?
Four Directions Financial is next to the drop-in program for Boyle Street Community Services, just north of the downtown arena. (CBC)

That's when ATB landed on the idea of biometric identification.

It's new in Canada, but half-a-world away in India, the government has used the technology as a poverty alleviation tool — to mixed reaction. In a country of a billion people, the government is endorsing the largest biometric ID system in the world. Residents are given a 12-digit identification number that is linked to their biometric and demographic data.

The system is widely encouraged to help the very poor access government programs, such as rations, and is meant to ensure people are not duping the system.

In Edmonton, about 80 per cent of the clients at Four Directions Financial signed up for their accounts with biometric identification. They need one piece of ID, then provide their retina and fingerprint scans.

Over time, tellers start to know their customers by name or face. They're also trained to handle the unique circumstances of their  clientele.

"There needs to be more understanding that clients aren't all employed when they walk into a bank," says Marg Archibald, manager at Four Directions Financial.
Marg Archibald, manager of Four Directions Financial, has seen the financial institution grow to 800 accounts since it opened in September 2016. (CBC)

"We have to be willing to accept, and be non-judgmental, and just take people where they're at."

Archibald has a background in law and education, and went through five months of training at an ATB branch to learn about bank operations. She also knows how to handle what she calls "fierce conversations" with clients.

"We'll tell them, 'I don't feel really good about giving you all this cash. I'm worried about you. You're really intoxicated. But if that's what you're telling me you want; is that what you're telling me you want?' And sometimes they'll pause and think about that."

But if customers are adamant, it's ultimately their decision.

We'll tell them, 'I don't feel really good about giving you all this cash. I'm worried about you.'- Marg Archibold, Four Directions Financial

Archibald has seen $1,588 — the amount allotted through AISH — disappear in one day. She's seen a $25,000 payout from the federal government spent in a week. But she's also seen people carefully manage their spending.

Rare service in Canada

Operations such as Four Directions are rare in Canada.

Catherine Ludgate is manager of community investment at VanCity Credit Union, which operates Pigeon Park Savings in Vancouver's downtown east side.
Biometric data, such as fingerprints, links customers with their accounts at Four Directions Financial. (CBC)

"We think of it as a really important investment by the credit union to bank the under-banked. We see it as an important investment and a better investment than having grants and just giving money away."​

One of the ties between Four Directions Financial and Pigeon Park Savings is Dave Mowatt. He was VanCity's CEO when Pigeon Park opened operations in 2004, and is the current president of ATB.

Huculak says part of the reason Four Directions Financial works is because ATB runs an agency model throughout the province.

For her part, Archibald has future dreams for the bank and its clients. Micro-loans are not quite at the stage of being a "seed of an idea" at Four Directions. But Archibald says they're close to thinking more about such programs.

"We just don't want to be an account bank. We want to be able to provide real, everyday services. Our dream is to have the first mortgage come from our community. To say, look you have enough money to buy yourself a small home somewhere."