SHEET HARBOUR – Scotiabank’s announcement last week that it will shut down operations in Sheet Harbour this summer is earning widespread rebukes from municipal, federal and civic leaders; fuelling a grassroots movement to remind the third-largest financial institution in Canada of its roots and encourage it to reconsider the move.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said David Hendsbee, Halifax Regional Municipality Councillor (Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore), in a Facebook message to The Journal.
“To see essential banking services close down is a difficult pill to swallow for our communities,” stated Sean Fraser, Member of Parliament for Central Nova and Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
“This is devastating news,” Tom McInnis, president of the Sheet Harbour and Area Chamber of Commerce and a retired Canadian senator, said in an interview. “When a financial institution leaves town, there’s a perception that they don’t want to be there.”
Meanwhile, a petition to persuade the bank to reverse its decision and recognize its long history in the community has already garnered more than 230 local signatures by Jan. 16.
“I think we could probably collect over 1,000,” said Jeannie Boutilier, proprietor of Jeannie’s Nails, who launched the campaign shortly after the announcement.
“Scotiabank in our Eastern Shore area covers from Ship Harbour to Liscomb. I’m pretty sure there’s got to be at least 7,000 people there… I own a small business in Sheet Harbour and I’ve been with the bank for 25-plus years.”
Scotiabank (Bank of Nova Scotia, founded in Halifax in 1832), with assets totalling $1.2 trillion, shocked residents Jan. 12, when it said the Sheet Harbour branch “will be consolidated into neighbouring branches” in August. Branches in Sydney Mines and Westville are facing the same fate, as part of the bank’s commitment to bring “advice and solutions to more customers in more locations across Atlantic Canada.”
Scotiabank’s statement sent to The Journal said, “These solutions will enhance [its] branch network and address the evolving needs of customers and their greater demand for convenience, self-serve channels and virtual solutions, trends only accelerated by the pandemic.” The statement added: “Scotiabank continues to be deeply committed to the Atlantic region and has been an active part of the community.”
But residents and community leaders say the move will leave hundreds with no branch access to a major financial institution in less than an hour’s drive from a part of rural Nova Scotia, where many residents are uncomfortable with online banking and unreliable Internet connectivity sometimes makes those options problematic. The one other financial institution in Sheet Harbour is East Coast Credit Union.
Emails sent to Scotiabank officials for clarification on how many Sheet Harbour area customers would be affected by the decision and a request for information about the disposition of branch staff were not returned, but McInnis said the seven employees concerned have been offered transfers to the bank’s Truro location.
I know them, and they were completely caught off guard,” he said. “Many of them were working toward a pension, and for them it’s a career. They’re not going to pick up and move to Truro.”
For Fraser, that loss of personal service is especially troubling. “As the only branch on the Eastern Shore that is east of Dartmouth, many rural residents in my riding, especially seniors, depend on the in-person service that has been available in Sheet Harbour for many generations,” he said. “I have worked to bring investments to rural communities since I first became a Member of Parliament so they will continue to be vibrant places to live and work for generations to come.”
Just as worrying, McInnnis said, is the message the move sends to the rest of the world, at a time when Sheet Harbour has been working hard to map its economic development, diversify its commercial mix, and strengthen its community infrastructure. “Our town is on the move,” he said. “I’m working on a project now over at the [Port of Sheet Harbour]. We’ve also got the oil rig in there. And Dexter Construction has put in a major quarry. All of this is going to create jobs.”
Boutilier agreed. Born and raised in the Sheet Harbour area, she said she’s seen a real change for the better in recent years. “We have a brand-new school, and we’re getting a new lifestyle centre. We are in the process of making our community a place that people want to be a part of.”
Neither she nor McInnis buys the argument that the move to online banking will somehow benefit Sheet Harbour, either socially or economically. “One of the things people moving here look at is the number of financial institutions,” Boutilier said. “My husband and I would rather go to the bank, because sometimes you can’t trust [online service].”
What’s more, McInnis noted, the argument that people are increasingly eschewing in-person banking, especially in rural areas, is evidentially wrong; bank branches, he suggested, are as much community centres and gathering places as are other spaces in a small town. “The encouragement of online banking and all this type of thing is pervasive,” he said. “Apparently [we’re told] it’s becoming obsolete to visit a bank. But any time I’ve gone over there [to the Sheet Harbour branch] I’ve had to wait in line.”
Boutilier remains optimistic, if realistic, about the likely impact of her petition. “Sheet Harbour’s sidewalks are not rolling up,” she said. “We’re not just going to say, ‘Okay, go ahead and do what you want to do.’ I think we can be heard. We matter. At end of the day, that’s the bottom line.”
For now, the bank seems settled, if not especially responsive to the criticisms swirling around it.
“Our branches remain a cornerstone of how we serve our customers,” Regional Senior Vice President for Atlantic Canada, David Noel, said in the Scotiabank statement. “The branch is where we form relationships with our customers, build trust with our customers, and where many of our customers have the most important financial conversations of their lives.”