How the closure of a small island bank left community members stranded

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After months of fighting, residents of the remote island of Grand Manan said goodbye to their only bank on August 24.

Robert Lothian/Global News

For most people, the impending closure of a local bank branch means that some community members will have to drive a few extra minutes to deposit a cheque.

For residents of Grand Manan Island, a mostly aging population, however, the closure of the only branch on the island meant that a “quick trip to the bank” would now become a $30 ticket and a 90-minute ferry ride which, for some, is not an option.

The announcement of the impending shuttering of doors came from Scotiabank back in January, indicating “a shift to going online” as a key focus for their future. As of August, it has now closed after 100 years of service, a move impacting almost 2,400 islanders.

The bank has now consolidated with the St. George branch. While explaining the hypothetical trip residents will have to make to Global News, Grand Manan mayor Bonnie Morse explained residents would probably need to catch the 7:30 a.m. ferry to the mainland. For the ferry, passengers are required to wait in the boarding area 45 minutes before boarding to ensure they retain their reservation.

From the ferry terminal, St. George is a 15-minute drive. Taking the earliest ferry means residents will likely arrive before that branch opens at 10 a.m., causing them to wait even more.

After completing the banking processes, residents must get to the ferry terminal in Black’s Harbour 45 minutes before the next scheduled departure. Morse figures at that point, “…you’d be catching the 1:30 p.m. ferry, arriving on Grand Manan between 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. In most cases, this would all need to be done on a business day, meaning many people are not only paying for the ferry trip and gas, but they’re also going to have to take a day off work and lose money there.”

A summer of fighting

Grand Manan mayor, Bonnie Morse spent her summer delegating for the island residents advocating for a change. As the island was running out of options, the mayor made a trip to Parliament Hill in June.

In a statement to Global News, Morse said she doesn’t think most politicians – or bank employees in a Toronto office tower – understand the situation many islanders are in, where in-person banking is their only option, as they live in an area without access to wireless internet.

“In Ottawa or Toronto, you have no idea what the story is about leaving Grand Manan and what that means,” she says. “When you look at the map we really don’t look that far away.”

Morse said New Brunswick Southwest Member of Parliament John Williamson has set up a meeting with officials from the federal finance department – including staff from Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office. Morse went to Parliament with Grand Manan Councillor Gregg Russell, who has also been active in trying to keep the island’s bank in business, having organized a rally in May to raise awareness of the impending closure.

“We decided back in January we were going to do anything and everything we could to find a solution and, while this may be a longshot, sometimes a longshot pays off,” Morse said.

She explained that banking staff have tried soliciting all major banking institutions and credit unions to try and usher in a replacement to no avail.

Results and the future of the bank

Karla Renić/Global News

The delegation in June was left without any tangible solutions. The mayor left the nation’s capital, saying, “…I thought it was a positive meeting,” Morse told Global News from Ottawa while waiting for her flight home.

“They took a lot of notes, listened to what we had to say and were very engaged with the conversation.”

Morse said there were seven people in the Ottawa meeting, including three from Freeland’s office, MP Williamson and a staff member from his office, Grand Manan councillor Gregg Russell and herself.

However, there isn’t much the federal government can do in terms of intervening in Scotiabank’s closing.

“I think we’re still going to continue to push Scotiabank to reconsider or to see if there is some sort of alternative that we can come up with that will bridge some of the gaps that we need to have bridged,” Morse said.

“This decision has been made as a result of a fulsome business review,” the bank said in a statement. “We feel that this relocation will help us provide better service and greater resources to our customers in both the Grand Manan and St. George communities.”

In a statement to Global News, the bank said it has “continued to work with the community of Grand Manan to ensure a smooth transition and help educate customers on alternative ways of banking. We have also donated towards creating a digital café to ensure those who might not have regular internet access at home have access to all these services,” the statement continued.

A spokesperson says there have been no changes. A statement provided says, in part:

“We regularly review our branch network, the number of customers that we serve in the market area, and the way that those customers are doing their banking. We look forward to the opportunity to work with customers to understand how we can help make this transition easier.”

This isn’t only happening in New Brunswick. Scotiabank branch in Bath, near Florenceville-Bristol, will also be closing. The bank said people can still use their telephone and online banking, as well as a priority line service for seniors over the age of 75.

Morse said people like seniors who are in a cash mindset pay their bills in the bank. There are also cash-based businesses that need change, especially in the summer during peak tourism season.

“It puts a huge burden on them if they can’t access those services here locally,” she said. “While tourism is a huge part of our economy year-round, we have a very active fishery,” she said. “We have the agriculture industry. I mean, we have a really good economy here on Grand Manan.”

(Dylan Tucker/Twitter)

A future for the island

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the island has also seen the loss of its dentist office and funeral home.

“The first two were retirements, and there just wasn’t an opportunity to attract someone to move to the island to take over that business,” Morse said. “This one [the bank], I really don’t know what it is.”

Council is still trying to find a bank replacement. “One thing Grand Mananers do know how to do, it’s how to support local business, and I know people would be very appreciative and supportive if that happened,” she said. Towards the end of the summer, Grand Manan residents held rallies both on and off the island in an attempt to change Scotiabank’s decision, citing concerns from convenience to public safety.

Previous statements from the bank say the decision came from a review of customer numbers in market areas along with an assessment of how customers are doing banking.

Scotiabank wouldn’t share those specific details for Grand Manan, repeatedly stating its final decision to leave Grand Manan. In recent months, residents pulled out all the stops to keep the bank, staging protests and making trips to Ottawa.

“I am the island lawyer, and the closure of Scotiabank is going to affect me both personally and professionally. I came to say goodbye to the staff, who’ve been incredible,” said Norah Davidson to Global News.

“We know that we’ve done everything that we could do and while it didn’t produce definitive results, at least we have checked that box and we have made every effort we could to make sure we have some sort of financial security. They haven’t been actively seeking out business opportunities that are here for them and they’re quite willing to close in favour of sending everyone to the mainland,” said Davidson.

Small business owner Tiffany Gaskill recalled a lady waiting in line on the last day the bank was open, turning around and asking her, “this is all just a bad dream, right?”

However, it is the new reality. Gaskill says it impacts her in more ways than one, “I’ve been working so hard all summer to reach debt repayment goals, and today I finally made the last payment on one of those. I’d be more excited if the next payment wasn’t also going to cost me  a day of work, 2 ferry trips, multiple hours and around $50-100 just to make the transaction. As a small business owner, in my mid 30’s, in todays economy, this is a little bit scary. Imagine being a senior.”

The Baron reached out to Scotiabank to inquire about an update, and as of today there is no change.