Saskatchewan

'It is scaring a lot of people': Banks closing 20 rural Sask. branches in 2017

Like schools and hospitals, banks are often seen as the lifeblood of small towns. But with 20 rural bank branches closing in Saskatchewan this year, some in those communities feel like they’re at risk of bleeding dry.

Banks cite online banking, changing nature of banking as reasons for closures

Sheila McDonald, 93, is struggling with the news the only bank in her hometown of Invermay, Sask., is closing down. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Disbelief and anger were Sheila McDonald's first reactions to the news that her hometown of Invermay, Sask., would be losing its only financial institution this fall — a long-standing Royal Bank of Canada branch.

"Your big fear is losing your school or losing your [care] lodge. When they start with this, you don't know where it's going to end," McDonald said.

"I don't know why they're trying to kill the small towns."

Invermay is home to one of 20 rural bank branches closing down in Saskatchewan this year, from three of Canada's biggest banks: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Royal Bank of Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank.

 

Many of the communities seeing the closures still have credit unions, but three of them will be left without any financial institutions

That includes Invermay, located about 250 kilometres northeast of Regina.

When Invermay's RBC branch closes this fall, the next closest financial institution will be nearly 50 kilometres away in Wadena or Canora, Sask.  

McDonald says she'll have to hire someone to drive her to the bank in another community due to her failing eyesight. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Online banking isn't an option for the 93-year-old McDonald, who said she doesn't own a computer and doesn't intend to buy one.

Travelling is also a struggle due to her failing eyesight.  As of this fall, her only option to access money will be to hire someone to drive to the next town to go to the bank for her, McDonald said.

"We need these facilities. We have to have them," she said.

Aside from being a place to handle affairs, the bank was also a social hub for the community. McDonald fondly recalled heading to the bank and talking to the tellers, whom she called the "girls."

She figures several people in her community will be out of a good job. 

"It's going to be a big price, that's for sure," McDonald said.

Changing reality

The Canadian Bankers Association's says there is a trend away from bricks-and-mortar banking.

Last year online banking was the most common form of banking in Canada, according to its annual report. Mobile banking is also on the rise.

Only 12 per cent used the branch as their primary method of banking.

 

RBC declined interview requests, but responded via email.

Regional president Kim Ulmer said the company is changing the way it serves small communities in the internet age.

The services are becoming more of a blend of online and cellphone banking, as well as branches and mobile advisers. Mobile advisers travel to people's homes to give them financial advice in larger centres, primarily regarding mortgages. 

Ulmer said that's leading to changes in the size and structure of RBC's branch network in Saskatchewan, with the bank combining or relocating branches or opening new ones.  

Bank branch closures in Saskatchewan in 2017.

"These decisions are made after careful consideration of how we can best serve our clients in the market," Ulmer said.

The bank said it recognizes that changes like this may be challenging, but wants to work with people to find solutions. 

But McDonald said RBC hasn't given the townspeople a good reason why it's closing the branch. She said the local bank usually has a lineup, and she gets good returns on her bank share investments.

"Those people that sit with their pointed heads and their pointed pencils and tell us and take ... the bank away from us —they don't think about what goes on in these small villages. All they can see is dollars and cents and that's it," she said.

Main Street in Invermay, Sask., isn't as bustling as it used to be. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Business impact

At least two local businesses are feeling the uncertainty.

Renee Parsons owns the town's only grocery store, BR First Stop Grocers on Main Street.

During a regular afternoon, customers will trickle in to buy their basics, ranging from chocolate bars and condiments to vegetables. It's not uncommon for people to share their worries with Parsons. 

"I think it is scaring a lot of people. And I'm one of them," Parsons said.

Renee Parsons owns Invermay's only grocery store, BR First Stop Grocers. She's worried the bank closing will affect business. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Parsons is concerned that her customers will do all their shopping in the larger centres since they have to go there to use the bank anyway.

"I guess time will tell; the ripple effect. The streets are empty right now. It's going to be like a ghost town, I think," Parsons said.

Mark Eskra is the owner of Priority Insurance Inc. in Invermay, just kitty corner to the grocery store. Eskra said he's not happy about the change, but is accepting it.

"Nobody's going to stop it. Not you, nor I, nor anyone. It's going to move on," he said.

Mark Eskra owns an insurance business in town. He's not happy with the bank closure, but says it's time to move forward. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

The closure will affect not just Invermay but the surrounding communities that rely on it for their banking needs, according to Eskra. 

He described Invermay as a hub in the centre of a bit of a dead zone for services.   

In fact, other financial institutions in the area have closed up in recent years. 

Just a few months ago in December 2016, nearby Margo to the west lost its credit union. Then to the east, Rama's closed down not long before that.

Meanwhile RBC is trying to do some damage control in Invermay.

It said it's "actively exploring options" for a cash machine in Invermay, and may offer a community Wi-Fi service to aid people with online banking.

Saskatchewan banks are disappearing. In 2017, 20 rural bank branches will close. 0:43

An ongoing trend

Economist Rose Olfert studied rural communities for most of her lengthy career with the University of Saskatchewan.

The closures don't surprise her. She said the viability of a business relates to whether it has enough people in the area to make it sustainable. Banks, she said, are no different.

"If there has been a bank or a credit union in the past, and then that bank closes down, then it has to be the case that there was at one time the required threshold market size or threshold population size that the bank could draw on, and something has happened," she said.

If we could hold our bank, we could hold a lot.- Sheila McDonald

Olfert highlighted online banking and declining population as some of those high-impact changes.

"If 20 per cent of the population uses online banking, you need 20 per cent larger population to support an actual bricks and mortar bank," she said.  

It's a view that many economists agree with, but it doesn't hold much sway with the townsfolk. 

"If we had any chance of getting this bank back that would be one thing that would hold the town together," McDonald said.

"If we could hold our bank, we could hold a lot."

About the Author

Micki Cowan

Reporter/producer

Micki is a reporter and producer at CBC Vancouver. Her passions are municipal issues and water security.