In 1900, Alphonse Desjardins creates a first “caisse populaire” in Lévis. He draws inspiration from developments in Europe to provide the working classes with access to credit outside the system of usury, all the while introducing them to the benefits of saving. Desjardins’ “Banque du peuple” arouses curiosity throughout French Canada.
The following year, Msgr Joseph-Thomas Duhamel, Archbishop of Ottawa, hastens to write to Desjardins, “I would like to learn about the operation of the ‘caisse populaire’ you founded in Lévis. Would you be so kind as to send me a copy of the constitution that governs it and other related documentation? Shouldn’t the clergy show the greatest interest in all that may be useful to the Canadian people!”1
The Caisse populaire Sainte-Famille d'Ottawa is created in 1910 with personal assistance from Alphonse Desjardins. He helps to establish the Caisse populaire Saint-François d'Assise en 1911, and the Caisse populaire Sainte-Anne d'Ottawa the following year. The local commercial elite then creates the Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Notre-Dame “caisses” in 1913. Desjardins – working as a French stenographer in the House of Commons from 1892 to 1917, and living six months per year in Ottawa’s Lowertown during this period – is closely involved in their development. He chairs the first two annual meetings of the Caisse populaire Notre-Dame. Others “caisses” are added during the phenomenal expansion of money-saving activity during World War II: Saint-Charles (1941), Champlain (1943), Vanier (1943), Orléans (1944) and Cyrville (1944).
The establishment of the first “caisses” in the capital have significant consequences for the lives of the less fortunate, especially the Francophones of Lowertown, who are often forced to mortgage their houses to obtain loans. Louis-J. Billy, the first manager of Ottawa’s Caisse populaire Notre-Dame, addresses this issue in his memoirs, published in 1963:
Trust companies and life insurance companies plainly refused to embark on this dangerous adventure, alleging that this part of the city of Ottawa, rather poor and exposed to fires ... was too serious a risk. Was this view tinged with a bit of bigotry and contempt for poor French Canadians, woodcutters and water carriers? It is not out of the questions. What contributed to increasing this fear ... among Ottawa’s Anglo-Saxons was that the castles, palaces and luxurious houses in Lowertown were conspicuously absent. This distressing state of affairs was transformed from one day to the next with the foundation of the credit unions.2