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Published November 1, 2022

What Is a Caisse Populaire?

Caisse populaires are not-for-profit, member-owned financial institutions that operate in francophone jurisdictions of Canada.

A caisse populaire is a financial co-operative that offers similar services to a traditional bank, such as personal banking, mortgages, loans, insurance and business banking services.

In contrast to banks that operate on a for-profit basis, caisses populaires are not-for-profit co-operatives that are owned by their members, who hold accounts and financial products with the institution. Members are eligible to receive a share of any profits realized by their caisse populaire and to vote in its annual general meeting.

Caisses populaires, which are similar in structure to credit unions, operate in francophone provinces of Canada, such as Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick.

Well-known caisses populaires in Canada

By far, the largest caisse populaire in Canada is Groupe Desjardins. Founded in 1900, Caisse Populaire Desjardins provides personal and business banking, mortgages, insurance, investment, institutional asset management and wealth management services to 7.5 million members and clients. With more than 200 physical locations in Ontario and Quebec, Desjardins is the only financial institution established in more than 140 towns and villages in Quebec — and it boasts the largest network of ATMs in the province.

Elsewhere, UNI (Caisse populaire acadienne ltée) is the largest Acadian francophone financial institution with 157,000 members in New Brunswick. UNI offers savings options, such as registered retirement savings plans, registered education savings plans, day-to-day banking services, mortgages and other loan products, as well as various savings and payroll solutions for businesses.

With branches across Ontario, Caisse Alterna (also known as Alterna Savings and Credit Union Ltd.) was the first full-service, member-owned financial co-operative established outside Quebec. It serves more than 150,000 members with everyday banking, business banking, insurance, mortgages and wealth management services. It also has a digital-only bank — Alterna Bank — as a wholly owned subsidiary.

Also offering savings and investment products, as well as credit cards, lines of credit, loans and mortgages, Caisse Alliance operates in Northern Ontario and serves 50,000 members. 

And in Manitoba, Caisse Financial Group serves 35,000 members and provides personal banking products, as well as business loans and accounts.

How a caisse populaire works — and how it’s different from a traditional bank

On the surface, a caisse populaire offers similar services to a traditional bricks-and-mortar or online-only bank. Offerings include chequing and savings accounts, tax-free savings accounts, credit cards, mortgages, insurance and business banking services.

But the key difference is that people who choose to access their financial services via a caisse are considered members, rather than just customers or shareholders. A caisse member can be elected as an officer, administrator or youth advisory board member, receive dividend payments if and when the caisse turns a profit, or vote in its annual general meeting. Caisses populaires follow a “one member, one vote” system, as opposed to publicly listed financial institutions, for example, in which you’d have to be a shareholder to have a say.

Caisse membership can also come with benefits such as better rates on certain products, discounts on management fees or no annual fee for additional credit cards. Through the Desjardins network, most members of regional caisses populaires in Ontario and New Brunswick, as well as Quebec, can access surcharge-free ATMs.

In addition to being focused on their members, caisses populaires are locally managed and community minded, often donating money to local organizations or sponsoring events. In some cases, members have donated part of their dividends to organized “participatory governance” initiatives such as scholarships or a community development fund.

How are caisses populaires regulated?

Unlike banks and other financial institutions that are regulated by the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions under the Bank Act, caisses populaires and credit unions are usually regulated under provincial legislation. In Ontario, for example, they are governed by the Financial Services Regulatory Authority under the Credit Unions and Caisses Populaires Act and in Quebec under the Loi sur les caisses d’épargne et de credit (the Savings and Credit Unions Act.)

Part of this regulation includes protection for your savings. Once you become a member of a caisse populaire in Ontario, for example, your insurable deposits are protected through the FSRA’s Deposit Insurance Reserve Fund up to a maximum of $250,000 for nonregistered insurable deposits, like chequing or savings accounts, and unlimited coverage for deposits held in registered accounts.

The federal government also established rules in 2012 that licensed some provincial caisses populaires to operate as federal credit unions, allowing them to conduct business and grow across Canada. These institutions are members of the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation, so deposits held in these caisses populaires are eligible for CDIC protection. 

Who can join a caisse populaire?

To join a caisse populaire, you need to meet some similar criteria as required for an account with a bank. Typically, you need to:

  • Be the age of majority in your province.
  • Reside in a province served by that particular caisse populaire.
  • Have a Social Insurance Number.
  • Pay a one-time membership fee.

If you’re under the age of majority, you may be able to open an account with a signature from a parent or guardian. 

How to join a caisse populaire

Becoming a member of a caisse populaire is as simple as opening an account and making a deposit, although you do have to choose a local branch.

At Desjardins, for example, you can either open an account in person with an advisor or online by providing your SIN, allowing identity verification via the credit bureau and selecting your local caisse populaire location.

The next step to move from applicant to caisse member is to buy a qualifying share. To do this, the caisse makes a withdrawal from your first deposit to purchase a qualifying share that allows you to become a member. The amount required varies; for example, it’s $5 at Desjardins and $10 at Caisse Alliance.

Once you’ve signed up with a caisse populaire and bought your qualifying share, you’re considered a member and are eligible to vote at the annual general meeting. You’re eligible to receive dividends if your caisse populaire has surplus earnings in any fiscal year.

To find a caisse populaire outside of Quebec, visit the Canadian Credit Union Association’s website. For a list of Desjardins caisse locations in Quebec and Ontario, visit the website to filter by region.

About the Author

Helen Burnett-Nichols

Helen Burnett-Nichols is a freelance writer specializing in news and feature articles on a variety of business, legal and investment topics. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Globe and Mail, National Post Legal Post, Canadian Lawyer magazine, Benefits Canada and Golden Girl Finance. Follow her on Twitter @helenbnichols or visit her website, burnettnichols.com.

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