Coasting to the Bank   3 comments


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Setting up a bank account in new location isn’t the most fun chore, but hardly the most difficult.  One takes their money to a bank of their choosing, talks to a new accounts rep, executes a bunch of paperwork and voilà – you establish a savings and checking account.  You’re locked and ready to go, a stash of temporary checks (or cheques as spelled in Canadian English) in hand.

Not so hard, is it?  Unless you live in British Columbia.

Canada has a handful of nationwide mega banks:  Toronto-Dominion (TD); Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank), Bank of Montreal (BMO), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).  These behemoths do every kind of banking imaginable – for a princely fee.  Smaller regional banks like HSBC compete for business along with banks chartered similarly to Federal Savings Banks in the U.S.

Consumers have a third option:  credit unions.  Unlike most American counterparts, Canadian credit unions are community rather than occupationally based (like company or a teachers’ credit unions).  Anyone living in the community may join it.  If you move away, you can still keep your account.

Paul and I dealt separately with credit unions in the past.  We liked them for their personalized service and relatively low service fees.   Agreeing to join a credit union wasn’t a difficult choice.  Finding one with the right combination of services meeting our needs wasn’t as easy.

Greater Vancouver has its own credit union behemoth – VanCity.  It’s everywhere across the Lower Mainland and beyond – big enough to guarantee a less personalized level of service.

VanCity has ample competition:  Coast Capital Savings and Envision, Aldergrove and Prospera credit unions are its biggest competitors in Langley.

Credit unions here reinvest money and other resources into their communities, some into segments within it.  North Shore Credit Union (based in North Vancouver) is a generous supporter of arts communities in the neighborhoods and communities it serves.  Its offices donate display space to artists.  As stained glass artists, that appealed to us.

North Shore C.U. doesn’t have a Langley branch.  All its offices are west of the Fraser River.  It partners with other credit unions to offer remote banking services.  Credit union members can deposit funds at other credit unions east of the river in person (with instructions to deposit to North Shore) or by ATM.

We chose North Shore.  Opening an account required an appointment for application in person at its Vancouver East branch.

Soon we learned how opening a bank account is an arduous process in British Columbia.  Everyone opening an account must clear a credit check – a process taking 10 business days or longer for those moving in from the United States.  That’s quite a hurdle when an applicant has to write a rent check within a couple of weeks.

Credit ratings from the U.S. don’t transfer into Canada.  (Vice versa doesn’t work well either.)  Canadians who lived outside the country for more than seven years lose their Canadian credit rating.  We’re starting over from scratch.

Wait a minute!  Isn’t one of the purposes of opening a bank account to establish a credit rating?  (Yeah, I thought so too.)

Opening bank accounts in British Columbia used to be as easy as opening one in the States.  What happened?

Illegal production and smuggling of BC Bud (read: marijuana) to the U.S. took off in the Lower Mainland beginning in the late 1990s and continuing through the present.  With it came an uptick in money laundering in which financial institutions of all kinds unwittingly became ensnared.  Credit checks of new applicants became mandatory for new applicants per the  governing body for British Columbia’s s credit union community a couple of years ago.

Of course banks want to learn if new applicants are chronic check bouncers.  What they really want to know is if anything in the applicant’s past transactions points to potential money laundering.

Running a credit check requires entering an applicant’s social insurance number (the Canadian equivalent to an American social security number) into the bank’s computer system and checking it against numerous other databases.

Canadian Social Insurance numbers have nine digits (123-456-789) – a format radically different from nine digit U.S. Social Security numbers (123-45-6789).  Many banking institution databases, including those belonging to North Shore C.U.)  cannot handle the American format.

North Shore said they couldn’t speed up the process, in part because I’m not yet eligible to apply for a social insurance number.

We needed another option.

Paul remembered he still had a live account at the Sunshine Coast Credit Union in Sechelt, BC – a whopping 60 or so miles from our house across the Strait of Georgia.  It’s possible to drive to the coast – if you want to spend 12 or more hours in a car wrecking your undercarriage while navigating a surface other than a road.  The fastest way to get there is to ferry from Horseshoe Bay (“we’re a community, not a ferry terminal”) in West Vancouver.

For the short term, commutes from Langley into Vancouver are a time-consuming grind.  Crossing the Fraser is not for the faint of heart thanks to the expansion of the Port Mann bridge linking Coquitlam (an eastern Vancouver suburb) to Surrey and Langley.  The area around the Port Mann is under construction until sometime in 2013.  Once reopened, it will become a toll bridge.  Crossing the river to reach Burnaby, another eastern suburb bordering Vancouver, can take two hours under current conditions.

Herein lies the genius of Vancouver’s TransLink public transit system.  From the bus stop just up the block and the aid of a transfer to elevated rail at Surrey Central, one can land in downtown Vancouver, and take a bus to the Horseshoe Bay ferry dock in a couple of hours for the eye-popping price of $9 for an all-day three-zone pass.  With gas running at about $1.35 CAD per liter, you can’t drive it as cheaply.

Thinking we wouldn’t have time for photo ops, I didn’t take my camera.  Big mistake.  Downtown Vancouver is a 24/7-365 photo-op.  Cameras should be mandatory.  (The next cell phone will have one.)

That day’s photo-op was the annual 420 rally in the square fronting the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Were the huge crowd not obscured by a dense plume of pongy, sometimes skunky smoke wafting from untold amounts of BC Bud, it would have been a good one.

If the Vancouver Police laid all the stoners end-to-end that day, they would have been a lot more comfortable.  I couldn’t help but wonder if our bus driver would make it to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver without floating or suffering an attack of the munchies.

Once at Horseshoe Bay, we bought boarding passes for the 45-minute crossing of Howe Sound on B.C. Ferries to the Sunshine Coast.

Before taking a job in Fort Nelson, BC in the mid-1990s, Paul lived in Roberts Creek, a small Sunshine Coast community located between Gibson’s to the south and Sechelt to the north.  Riding this ferry was part of his daily 2-hour commute.  It sounds long and bothersome, but Paul found riding the ferry a stress-reliever.  With loads of scenic beauty from beginning to end, it was easy to understand why.  (This website’s header photo of Black Tusk – the sacred home to the Thunderbird of Coast Salish legend – was taken from the ferry deck in 2010.)   Howe Sound, a part of the Georgia Strait (called the Salish Sea by some) looks much like a Norwegian fjord.

Drawn to its scenic beauty, small-town atmosphere, sunny and warm micro-climate relative to Vancouver and low housing prices compared to those across the bay, high-income commuters bringing appetites for McMansions, waterside condos and expensive cars discovered the Sunshine Coast in the 1990s and 2000s.  Their invasion was blunted by rising commuting costs related to fares charged by BC Ferries.  Properties in Langdale and Gibson’s are usually more expensive due to proximity to the ferry dock.  Of late, Sechelt attracts commuters and retirees looking for a better or newer housing deal.

These three burgs look like a collection of cottages, small businesses and a few McMansions precariously perched on Mother Rock – coastal Maine with occasional cedars or Douglas firs.

In the middle, lies the tiny, eccentric Gumboot Nation of Roberts Creek, nearly unchanged from Paul’s days as a resident.  Driving north on Highway 101, one can’t miss it.  In Roberts Creek and nearby Wilson’s Creek, one can spot the forest and the trees.  They are a big green oasis.

Creekers, as residents are known, are an odd bunch of artists, independent businesspeople, aged hippies, a few commuters and blue-collar sorts collectively marching to the beat of their own drummer and anthem (the J.J. Cale rendition of Cocaine).  The town’s symbol is the gumboot – nearly universal foot attire during rainy season.  It lives in its own little time zone.  Creek Time is manaña without the urgency.  Even the Creek’s Royal Canadian Legion branch isn’t immune to the town’s counterculture bent, much to the pique of its Pacific Command overseers.

Logging used to be big business along the Sunshine Coast.  Most of the old growth cedars and hemlock are gone except for areas of Roberts Creek near Camp Byng, an area Boy Scout camp.  (Paul’s old house backed up to the camp; three ‘old men’ – ancient old growth cedars – still grew strong on his property.)  Most homes remain nestled within towering groves of second-growth trees.

Except for Howe Sound Pulp and Paper, the mills and lumberjacks are mostly gone, replaced by tourist hordes mostly from Europe.  Germans are drawn particularly to Gibson’s, where Molly’s Reach provided the setting for The Beachcombers, a long-running Canadian TV show which became wildly popular in Germany, filmed on location in Gibson’s.  (The movie Needful Things was also filmed in Gibson’s and along the Coast.)

Coasters love these German invaders, who often opt for extended stays.  Eventually these tourists discover nearby Roberts Creek Provincial Park and other outdoor attractions.  Exploring more northerly reaches of Highway 101, they eventually discover Tsain’Ko, a gift shop selling Coast Salish First Nations arts and crafts owned by a member of the Sechelt Indian Band.  For Tsain’Ko, a busload of Germans on holiday is a license to print money.  It’s almost comical to witness.  (Cruise ships plying the strait off Roberts Creek frequently receive the “one fingered salute” from Creekers assembled to greet them.  You can pretty much guess which finger.)

Dividing Roberts Creek is Roberts Creek, traditionally the watery dividing line between the homelands of the Squamish and Sechelt First Nations, both part of the wider Coast Salish culture.

Sechelt, north of Roberts Creek marks the temporary end of the forest.  Part of the town sits on land belonging to the Sechelt Indian Band.  The Sechelts made a good collective living for many years mining a mountain on its land, turning the rock into gravel.  With the mountain half gone, the band seeks new ways to provide income for its members.  Leasing land is the answer and why so many mid-rise condo complexes offering waterfront views are found there.

Getting to the credit union by bus requires one to travel the entire length of a Sunshine Coast Transit bus from Langdale to downtown Sechelt, roughly a 45 minute trip in each direction.  From the end of the line, it’s a quick walk to the new Sunshine Coast Credit Union headquarters.

Because this credit union already knew Paul, we were able to get our new joint checking and savings accounts set up, ATM cards and an expedited credit check.  Everything would be finalized by the time we were due to write our next rent check.

True to SCCU’s word, it was.  For the first time, Paul and I shared a joint banking and checking account.  On top of that, we got to take a trip to the gorgeous Sunshine Coast to boot.  Or gumboot.

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3 responses to “Coasting to the Bank

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  1. I love your nods to BC Bud: “chronic check bouncers,” “invasion was blunted.”
    Très clever!

  2. Good post there. Keep up the great work.

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