Don Nerbas reviews Scott MacDonald and Robert D. Gregory, From Humble Beginnings: A History of the Credit Union Movement on Prince Edward Island, 1936-2016.

Scott MacDonald with Robert D. Gregory. From Humble Beginnings: A History of the Credit Union Movement on Prince Edward Island, 1936-2016 (Charlottetown: Acorn Press, 2017).

By Don Nerbas

Scholars have long recognized the unique role of cooperative enterprise in the history of the Maritimes. D. Scott MacDonald’s new book adds additional material to this subject. From Humble Beginnings surveys the development of credit unions on Prince Edward Island from their origins in the Antigonish movement during the 1930s to the Island’s credit union system of today, which commands assets of $1 billion.


D. Scott MacDonald with Robert D. Gregory. From Humble Beginnings: A History of the Credit Union Movement on Prince Edward Island, 1936-2016 (Charlottetown: Acorn Press, 2017).

The majority of the book is a 173-page chapter that lists and describes every credit union that has existed on the Island, organized chronologically from date established and consisting of 75 individual entries. It is, in effect, a reference book and institutional history. The narratives centre on the local presence of credit unions: the physical structures that housed them, their financial histories, as well as anecdotal accounts of events and initiatives associated with them. This is a work clearly geared towards a local audience, and does not appear to have been written to be read from cover-to-cover in one sitting.

Its utility as a reference work is mixed. The lack of an index, one suspects, will impair the book’s use for readers. And researchers will be disappointed that specific sources are not attributed to the many interesting stories and details that the book offers. On the other hand, the map indicating the location of credit unions and the reproduction of primary source materials in the appendices are useful features. 

MacDonald’s central theme is the achievement and success of the credit union movement. And certainly there is much to celebrate. Analysis and synthesis, however, occupy a minor role in the author’s treatment of this history. And the general view presented by MacDonald, that credit unions have occupied an unchanging connection to their founding cooperative principals, defies patterns revealed in the book. The genesis of the credit union movement of the 1930s, which gave rise to small credit unions across the Island, was qualitatively transformed by consolidations, closures, and the growing role of professional management and customer service, which have characterized Prince Edward Island’s credit union system since the 1960s.

These trends have rendered quaint the earlier ideals associated with the credit union movement, such as those expressed by A.B. MacDonald, associate director of the St. Francis Xavier University Extension Department and leading credit union organizer. He claimed at a meeting in Mount Stewart in 1941 that credit unions would contribute towards the making of “true economic and political democracy” (38). By contrast, as the author notes in the final section, today credit unions are driven by customer service and function as an important component of the “financial services sector”, whose evolution will be driven by “a dynamic and enhanced electronic and technological environment” (218). This language reveals very different ideas – separated by profound transformations in economic life – about the capacities and purpose of credit unions as drivers of change. The credit union plainly does not occupy the role it once did during the 1930s within the Antigonish movement’s integrated programme of societal transformation.[1]

Broader historical questions associated with the role of credit unions within the cooperative movement and local economic life are largely uninvestigated in this volume. We do learn that in the 1930s the Social Credit movement was being conflated with credit unions in the minds of some, and credit union organizers on Prince Edward Island were obliged to differentiate themselves from Social Credit. This distinction was also made by the province’s Minister of Education, Mark McGuigan, when he introduced the Credit Union Societies Act to the legislature in 1936, paternalistically extolling credit unions as institutions that would teach the neglected virtue of thrift. Credit unions thus appear to have assumed various political meanings, and, at least in one case, a comical misreading. In the early years of the Cold War, two Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers attended a credit union rally in O’Leary, following a mistaken tip that Communists were to meet there; the Mounties were surprised “that some of the best people in the town were at the meeting” (156).

While early credit unions, as a consequence of the lead role played by the Antigonish movement, were not untypically associated with Catholic parishes, MacDonald argues that the credit union movement on Prince Edward Island succeeded in superseding the denominational barriers that might have limited expansion. The volume also presents evidence that demonstrates the diverse local origins of individual credit unions, including their connection to the household economy. And MacDonald documents significant female participation; women were not only members but also served as local founders, directors, and managers of credit unions (see, for example: 39, 44, 64, and 88). The decision of the Borden Credit Union in 1976, reported by MacDonald, to hire “a full-time ‘male’ manager to build up the business and to collect bad loans” suggests that the “professionalization” of management positions was a gendered process that may have marginalized women from earlier roles (131). Material such as this might, one hopes, spark future research.

From Humble Beginnings provides some of the raw material that might be profitably contextualized, analyzed and explained by other historians. By tracing in broad outlines the history of every credit union in the province’s past, it offers a suggestive, but decidedly incomplete, portrait of local economic life. While it is not the Prince Edward Island equivalent of Ronald Rudin’s study of Quebec’s caisses populaires, it will perhaps make such a work a somewhat easier task in the future.[2]

Don Nerbas is Associate Professor and Chair in Canadian-Scottish Studies in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. His current book project, supported by SSHRC, examines the rise of the Cape Breton coal industry from the 1850s to the early twentieth century.


[1] For a recent account of the Antigonish movement’s decline, see Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta, The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

[2] Ronald Rudin, In Whose Interests? Quebec’s Caisses Populaires, 1900-1945 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

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1 Response to Don Nerbas reviews Scott MacDonald and Robert D. Gregory, From Humble Beginnings: A History of the Credit Union Movement on Prince Edward Island, 1936-2016.

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 13, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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