BORN: Levis, Canada East • 5 November 1854
DIED: Levis, Quebec • 31 October 1920
Ordinary men sometimes do great things, creating institutions that shape and alter the destinies of people and nations. Alphonse Desjardins, scarcely remembered today, was one such ordinary man.The originator of the caisses populaires had a useful but undistinguished career until he was in his mid-forties.
A militiaman during the Riel Rebellion of 1870, then a journalist, he eventually became the private publisher of the debates of the Quebec legisla¬ ture, a task he undertook as a strictly commercial venture from 1879 until 1890.
He tried his best to make the parliamentary record as full and fair as he could, but he was often subject to pressures to change and amend the remarks of the provincial parliamen¬ tarians. Ottawa was more welcoming, and he became the official reporter of the House of Commons Hansard from 1890 until 1917.
Good as he was at his often stultifying job, Desjardins’ real interests lay elsewhere. He worried over French Canadians’ subordinate status in Canada and the flood of emigrants to the cotton mills ofNew England, something he attributed to the dominance of English-speaking corporations and businessmen, to usurious interest rates, and also to the lack of capital to support small Quebec entrepreneurs.
Where could the money be found?
Desjardins found the answer in European cooperatives, long a subject of interest to him. If he could create a credit cooperative in Quebec, if he could mobilize the tiny savings of thousands of individuals, then enough money could be harnessed to increase the power of all.
The caisses populaires he envisaged would be true cooperative associa¬ tions: one vote per member, cast in person at general membership meetings, but as many shares as each wished; only members allowed to make deposits; a reserve fund; directors forbidden to borrow from the association; small loans preferred and fixed maximum loans; interest rates set by the association; and the association strictly limited to savings-and-loan operations.
As he said in 1907, “It is not merely cheap and facile credit which is required,” but “the act and effort of obtaining it shall educate, discipline and guide the borrower.”With the enthusiastic support and participation of local parish priests and many bishops, Desjardins’ scheme, begun in his home town in 1900 with a first deposit of ten cents and reserve capital of $26, began to spread through Quebec.
In 1906, after his vigorous lobbying, the legislature passed the Cooperative Syndicates Act that sanctioned and regulated the caisses, and the movement, freed of the obligation that the sponsor of each caisse assume the whole risk on his own, grew rapidly.
There was opposition from banks and busi¬ nesses frightened of competition, but Desjardins and his friends produced a “catechism” for the caisse populaires, and his pamphlet’s straightforward answers and instructions helped spread the cooperative gospel.
As numbers grew, Desjardins realized that the strength of the caisses could only be realized if they came together in federations, and his last years were devoted to this cause.The financial system begun by Alphonse Desjardins was a huge success. Taking a foreign model and adapting it to local conditions, he created an agent of change.
By 1929 Le Mouvement Desjardins, as it became known, had 1,788 caisses in Quebec (and more in Ontario and the northeast United States) with 45,000 members and assets of $11 million. Two decades later, assets were $225 million, and by 1995, the caissespopulaires in Quebec controlled $55.7 billion.
The federations, grouped together in a huge confederation, today operate much like any large bank and provide services to the local caisses. Moreover, they own insurance and trust compa¬ nies, and they operate mutual funds, money management services, and an industrial and commercial lending company.
Desjardins had created an enormous engine of growth, one that sped the industrialization of Quebec and fostered the idea that Quebecois could be masters of their own destinies.Alphonse Desjardins is not usually thought of as one of the creators of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s or the great independantiste upsurge that had been so powerful in recent Quebec.
But in his quiet fostering of cooperative ideas, in his mobilizing the savings of millions, he laid the groundwork for Quebec independence, and his heirs have actively pursued political and financial sovereignty.