The CIBC branch in Fort Simpson. Photo: Sean Whelly
Chief Kele Antoine has heard stories from Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation residents about the CIBC bank for weeks, now.
The extended closure of the only bank in the village of Fort Simpson – the only bank for hundreds of kilometres in any direction – means people may have money in their account but, with the branch doors closed and ATMs cash-dry, they can’t access it.
If the village loses phone and internet access, which has already happened once in the past six weeks, there’ll be no cash and no way to use credit or debit, either.
“There’s a whole host of issues that are stemming from this,” said Chief Antoine. “To see people with their own hard-earned money not have access to it is frustrating, and I’m really concerned for the current state of their mental health – are they doing OK?
“Overall, this is just frustrating to witness and to have to deal with, especially after the summer that the whole North has had with all the forest fire devastation, road closures. This is just one more thing that’s stressing our people out.”
As the Dehcho region’s hub, when Fort Simpson’s banking services are down, the nearby communities of Wrigley, Jean Marie River and Nahanni Butte all face a long day driving to and from another bank. Options include Fort Nelson, in northern BC, or Hay River to the east.
Each of those requires a round trip of at least half a day – or much more than that, depending on where you start – and that’s if you can make the commute, which for many residents isn’t an option.
“A lot of our Elders rely on the bank for accessing money for essential needs, such as food, rent, clothing, medicine, tobacco – there’s some challenges there with our Elders using debit cards,” said Antoine. “There’s some Elders that are having trouble putting food on the table, paying bills, paying rent, clothing, medicines, and taking care of their loved ones as well.”
The issue ripples out, affecting residents who need to spend time preparing for the coming winter.
“This is a time of year when a lot of our people and our Elders try to get out on the land, to harvest food for the whole winter,” said Antoine.
“They’re not able to access their own funds and it’s making it very difficult for them to plan traditional harvesting activities. It hinders our self-sufficiency and our self-reliance. It’s got an impact on our cultural practices and our customs.
“It’s very frustrating for us to see all this unfold. Our people in this day and age, especially our Elders in their twilight years, are trying to pass on their knowledge to the younger people and their families – and just seeing that not be able to happen is heartbreaking.”
When the region is cash-depleted, people who do odds-and-ends jobs are out of luck.
For some in Fort Simpson, Rowe’s Recycling Depot is a source of side cash, but there are others who rely on the income to afford essentials. With the bank out of action, the recycling depot has closed its doors because it ran out of cash.
“A lot of people do depend on the bottle depot, say, for on-hand cash,” said Diane Harold, office manager at Rowe’s Recycling Depot. “You have your regular customers that, you know, they do it quite faithfully.”
One resident of Wrigley came to Fort Simpson to cash a $1,000 cheque. After three earlier attempts by his brother to cash the cheque, this resident – who asked not to be identified – was determined to make sure it happens this time around.
He’s now staying at a hotel in town until the bank opens, facing a dilemma: he can’t pay the hotel and leave until he cashes his cheque, and he can’t cash his cheque until the bank reopens. He’s racking up a higher and higher bill for his stay in Fort Simpson – one that’ll be taken off his cheque once it’s finally cashed.
What happens if the fibre line burns?
It’s not clear whether CIBC grasps the urgency of the situation.
With limited cash on hand, leaving Fort Simpson gets complicated. Water levels are low – really low. The water level currently reads 1.9 metres at the Liard River ferry crossing, according to Environment Canada’s Hydrometric index. Sean Whelly, the mayor of Fort Simpson, has previously indicated that 1.8 metres is a crucial number when assessing potential ferry closures.
That means the ferry may well close early this year, temporarily cutting off the route to any other bank until the ice road comes in.
“The people who have the least ability to weather this are the ones that are suffering the most,” said Whelly. “We need CIBC to realize they have a social responsibility here in this community.”
Whelly has heard many reasons why the branch hasn’t reopened. “It’s a combination of staffing issues, the evacuation of Yellowknife, and difficulties in getting cash into Fort Simpson,” he said. According to Whelly, there is one CIBC employee currently working at the Fort Simpson branch. However, one employee is not allowed to operate alone, which has forced the branch to close.
This past July, one resident of Fort Simpson applied to a job at the branch, but was turned away by the manager. “She said: ‘No, we’re not taking applications in person. You’ve got to apply online,’” recalled Josh Campbell, the applicant.
“I was frustrated and I didn’t follow up … I took my time and went to see you. I gave you my résumé and cover letter,” he said, describing his feelings toward the bank. “Why couldn’t they accept it?”
Maintaining staff at any northern business is a challenge, but Fort Simpson resident Anna Pontikis McLeod, who said she had formerly worked as a TD Canada Trust manager, questioned whether CIBC was paying enough to fill vacancies.
“The problem is, the CIBC doesn’t pay northern rates. So, a secretary here in the Northwest Territories for the GNWT could make more than a banker,” said Pontikis McLeod.
The bank’s pay scale in Fort Simpson could not be immediately verified. An advertisement for a job at the Fort Simpson branch, found online, promised a “competitive salary” and incentive pay, alongside a range of benefits, but did not mention any form of northern living allowance or isolation pay.
Pontikis McLeod said the bank’s closures have been an issue for virtually the entire year.
“It’s been more than two weeks,” she said. “It’s been off and on for more than seven months.”
And with communities totally reliant on digital transactions when the branch isn’t open, another issue arises.
More than 100 km east of Fort Simpson, a wildfire is burning along the highway near Trout River. The fibre-optic line connecting Fort Simpson to the wider world runs along that highway and does so above ground, suspended on poles, beside that stretch of road.
Should the fire damage that cable, residents would have no way to access money.
“Literally, we’d have nothing. There’d be no business going on here at all,” said Whelly.