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More than a third of Canadians are enrolled in a Credit Union. This means that Canadians are the highest users per capita of Credit Unions in North America.

What is a Credit Union?

Credit unions are financial institutions owned and directed by their account holders and customers. It operates to promote thrift, provide credit at better rates than the market would otherwise provide. Most credit unions elect their directors with every member having an equal vote no matter how much money that the member may have invested. Credit unions offer a stripped down version of the suite of financial services that banks offer. Credit unions often use different language; for example savings accounts are called share accounts.

Credit Unions in Québec and the Desjardins Group

The biggest users of Credit Unions within Canada are the Québecois, where Credit Unions are known as caisses populaires, French for “People’s Bank”. Most French speaking credit unions within Canada are part of together in the Mouvement des caisses Desjardins in French (in English the Desjardins Group). It is the largest financial institution in Québec and the sixth largest in Canada as at the end of 2007 it had 536 caisses populaires, 5.8 million members and $144 billion of assets. In 2006 there were more than 40,000 employees and 6,500 elected and volunteer officers.

The first Credit Union in North America was founded in 1901 in Lévis, Québec by Alphonse Desjardins, after whom the Desjardins Group was named, a reporter in the Canadian parliament, and was called the Caisse Populaire de Lévis. It was inspired by Catholic social movements in Germany and so developed around the Catholic parishes within Québec. Alphonse Desjardins was also responsible in 1908 for setting up the first credit union in the United States which served emigrants from Québec.

It functions through 11 regional federations. Although most of its activity is in Québec it is also active in Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Florida. As well as the core credit union business it has subsidiaries dealing with insurance, real estate, venture capital and brokerage services. Being a leading advocate of the credit union model it invests in and offers technical assistance to credit unions in over 50 developing countries.

Credit Unions in English Speaking Canada

Most English speaking Credit Unions are members of the Credit Union Central of Canada. It is made up of 10 provinces with 444 unions as members. In late 2008 these credit unions had over 5 million members and $111 billion in assets. Although in absolute size this is comparable to the Desjardins Group, due to the larger number of English speaking Canadians it represents a far smaller share of the economy.

Important Canadian English speaking credit unions include Servus, Coast Capital Savings and Credit Union Atlantic. The Western provinces tend to be the heaviest users in English speaking Canada. In Alberta, there are more than 45 independent credit unions with over 200 branches. Over 731,000 Albertans belong to a Credit Union.