British Columbia

Pemberton residents rally to save their only bank before it closes in July

Residents and local First Nations say the region's unique demographics and geography make the bank a necessity.

The local Scotiabank is set to close on July 15, 2021

Demonstrators gather in front of the village’s only bank on Jan. 15, 2021, hoping to prevent its closure. (Susana da Silva/CBC)

Residents of the village of Pemberton, B.C., know their odds aren't good, but they are vowing to fight to keep the community's only bank.

More than a dozen people spent Wednesday camped outside the Scotiabank holding signs saying, "Please Stay" and "Save our Bank."

The local branch of the Scotiabank, which has been there for over 60 years, is set to close July 15, 2021, according to announcements posted on the doors last week. Customers are being told to take their business to the Whistler branch.

But customers, the town council and local First Nations want the bank to stay. They believe it is an essential service in the fast growing community, and the drive to Whistler is not an option for many, especially during a pandemic. They also say online banking is a challenge because many in the area struggle with cell service and internet connections.

There is a credit union in the village of 2,500, but many worry it won't be able to serve their needs.

Marina Cruz, holding a sign saying "Please don't close our bank," said many local seniors and elders are worried about losing a familiar branch. 

"I feel so bad, because it is so important for me and all the seniors in town. It is ridiculous not to have a bank," Cruz said.

"I want to cry right now," said Katherine Tekekwithia Peters after learning the news, listing off all the people who work there and have helped her over the years.

"I've been dealing with them for 42 years. It is going to affect me and a lot of other people."

Marina Cruz believes the bank is essential for seniors like herself. (Susana da Silva/CBC)

An online petition has garnered more than 2,000 signatures as of Jan. 15. Village council voted Tuesday night to write a letter to the bank's headquarters to try to convince them to change their minds.

Mayor Mike Richman says the local government wasn't given any warning the move was coming.

"It feels like the kind of decision that was made, using a set of metrics, looking at numbers on a paper at a distance, not recognizing, the demographics of our town, the complexities of it and the level of growth," Richman said.

A long drive 

Sheldon Dowswell, the chief administrative officer with the Lower Stl'atl'imx Tribal Council representing five of the 11 Stl'atl'imx Nation communities in the area consisting of about 2,700 people, said he was disappointed in the decision. 

"I'd say it is borderline between disappointment and anger," Dowswell said.  "Connectivity can be very limited, definitely for at least three of our five First Nations. So having the ability to actually see somebody in person is super important."

He says for some communities, the drive to Pemberton in bad weather can take three hours on forestry roads and up to five hours to Whistler.

While some communities do arrange group transportation into Pemberton, lengthening the trip will add strain to already limited resources, he said. 

There is also fear that COVID will still be a major concern in July when the bank is slated to close.

"I think people don't want to leave their homes anymore than they have to, and I think that you're adding a really unnecessary risk when going to a place like Whistler that is very heavy with tourists."

Business community concerns

The local Chamber of Commerce has also written a letter. President Steve McCloskey says there are federal regulations around the closures of bank branches and wants to make sure the decision was made with due process.

"We understand that there are difficult business decisions that have to be made," he said.

Pemberton Chamber of Commerce president Steve McCloskey says his organization has sent a letter to Scotiabank making the case to keep the branch open. (Susana da Silva/CBC)

Some local businesses fear if people head to Whistler to do their banking, the money they take out may stay there.

"There are a significant number of people that come to the bank on a regular basis on payday. They get their cheque, they get cash and they walk out of the bank with a fistful of dollars," said David MacKenzie, the general manager of the Pemberton Valley Lodge. 

"They just start basically spending that cash directly right here in our town, whether it be the grocery stores, drug store, liquor store, the deli."

Pemberton Valley Lodge general manager David MacKenzie worries about the economic impact on local businesses if more people head to Whistler to do their banking. (Susana da Silva/CBC)

Not a decision made lightly: Scotiabank

In a statement to CBC, Scotiabank said it did not make the decision lightly, and understands that this will have an impact on the Pemberton community.

"We feel that this relocation will help us provide better service and greater resources to our customers in both Pemberton and Whistler," the statement went on to say.

As for any potential job losses, the company says it is still finalizing its staffing plans and that it is working with the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada to ensure it follows all guidelines.

The credit union in town, BlueShore Financial, says it is working to fill the gap.

"We remain committed to Pemberton, " said CEO Chris Catliff. "We've been in operation for just coming up to 18 years, and don't see any changes."