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Black people often have a hard time accessing loans for their businesses. Many Black Canadians are engaging in mutual aid groups or peer-to-peer banking institutions. (Shutterstock)

Banking while Black: The business of exclusion

Black Canadians are twice as likely as those in the overall Canadian population to have low incomes, get shot, be unemployed and to encounter systemic bias that interferes with equal access to goods and services. The financial world is no exception.

Black people have a hard time getting access to money to borrow, or are completely shut out. They often encounter horrid service when they do go into a bank. Remember Frantz St. Fleur, a Haitian-Canadian, whose Toronto bank called the police while he was trying to deposit a $9,000 cheque? He was profiled by bankers who called the police, who promptly arrested him. Both assumed his cheque was fraudulent. It wasn’t.

More recently, a Nigerian-Canadian entrepreneur reached out to me to share her story. Her bank account was frozen because the bankers thought she had too much activity going in and out of her account. She’s a businesswoman. It should be no surprise to her bank that she makes a lot of transactions. It’s no wonder Black people want to redo the way banking works.

My current research examines business exclusion for racialized Canadians and how they co-opt resources to create vibrant local economies.

Progressive non-profits such as ACORN don’t get it. They speak of financial alternatives but they do not give any solutions. Sure, they speak about credit unions, but credit unions are too scarce to be a reasonable choice and aren’t often located in poor neighbourhoods. Like commercial banks, they also deal with their own cultural diversity issues.

A look at the Meridian credit union or the Alterna credit union in Toronto’s posh east end says a lot. They are situated in areas that are convenient for white people, and the general reputation of credit unions in Canada seems to be an old white man’s bank. They do not look like they are working to attract racialized clients.

An alternative financial service institution is one that provides outside help and one that promises to do things differently from formal banks. Up to now, the fixation by progressives has been on the big bad guys like Cash for Money, Money Mart and payday lenders.

But we also need to be looking at banking alternatives that actually help people. For example, Montreal has a group called Montreal Community Loan Fund (ACEM). It’s a community bank that started back in the 1980s to democratize finance and to create an inclusive business environment.

Today, ACEM is an organization supporting thousands of small business people, especially immigrant-owned businesses that cannot access credit, even from the guichet Desjardins, the supposed good guys. This was a credit union that started informally to help the French-speaking Catholic minority in rural Quebec in the 1900s. This original intent to put banking within reach of the excluded is important for Canada. Somehow, the modern-day credit unions have turned their back on racialized minorities who feel cut off from formal conventional banks.

‘Banker Ladies’

There Is Another Real Alternative (TIARA) in the form of mutual aid groups and co-operatives. Hundreds if not thousands of hyphenated Canadians engage in mutual aid groups or peer-to-peer banking institutions, officially known in academic circles as rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs).

ROSCAs are mutual aid groups. They’re informal institutions where members self-organize, decide on the rules and make regular fixed contributions to a fund that is given in whole or in part to each member in turn.

ROSCAs are an important way of organizing people and resources locally — and co-operatively. Although ROSCAs is an academic term, it is the official name for these systems that are very much localized.

ROSCAs are known worldwide in various cultural vernaculars like “Susu” in Ghana, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada; “Esusu” in Nigeria; “Ayuuto” and “Hagbad” in Somalia; “Equub” in Ethiopia and Eritrea; “Box-hand” in Guyana and Antigua; “Partner” in Jamaica; “Restourne” in DR Congo and “Sol” in Haiti. These many names depict the same phenomenon — people sharing money through co-operation. It is also about self-help and love — neighbours helping each other.

Black Canadians have contributed enormously to what we know about Canada’s social economy because of their innovation in these ROSCAs. Racialized Canadian women come together to organize ROSCAs in a voluntary manner in an effort to meet their own social and economic needs and the needs of others when they move to big cities like New York City, Miami, Toronto and Montreal.

These women are known as the “Banker Ladies.” This short history of Black women creating banking alternatives is revealing in that Black people in the Americas contribute profoundly to co-operative money traditions.

The co-operative tradition has been active in Canada for a very long time, yet it’s often associated with old white men and not Black communities. However, many people of colour who move here have a strong understanding of co-operative economics from their homelands. We need to change this “old white man” perception because the growth of co-operatives will depend on racialized Canadians in the future.

Economic self-help

In Canada the women who organize ROSCAs are stirring things up. The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diaspora at York University is carrying out a federally funded project, “African Origins in the Social Economy,” and a provincially supported project called “Social Innovations” focused on collecting empirical data from Canadian-based financial and business innovations in order to understand social enterprises, mutual aid and economic co-operation among people of colour, especially women.

So far the study explains that ROSCAs are the preferred institution where these women bank because of the business of exclusion in commercial banks. Sure these women have bank accounts at TD, CIBC and BMO, but they don’t use them much except to get a salary deposit. This is what University of Winnipeg’s Jerry Buckland refers to as the under-banked. ROSCAs are a place to do business and to form friendships and bonds.

Formal commercial banks and credit unions to some extent have not been kind to Black people. So in Canada’s financial centres, women are banking in their own way to make sure their money is shared by others who cannot get any help at a regular bank.

This is not a new practice, but an ancient and well-respected one coming from Africa as a way for people to pool money and then rotate it among each others, usually interest-free. ROSCAs build businesses and send children to school. Almost equally important, they are helping women entrepreneurs form lasting bonds.

Canada’s Banker Ladies are a perfect example of self-help, economic co-operation, love and the sharing economy because what they do is ensure the betterment of society. Bankers should know more about this special kind of mutual aid led by Black women — and learn a thing or two about humanity.

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