Sunday, July 3, 2022

Outrage grows over Sheet Harbour bank closure

Scotiabank conference call fails to allay community concerns

  • February 2 2022
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

SHEET HARBOUR – Facing intense public pressure over the closure of its Sheet Harbour location, Scotiabank confirmed last week that it will retain an automated banking machine (ABM) in the soon-to-be branchless community to “assist customers through the transition.”

The announcement came during a conference call on Jan. 27 organized by Scotiabank to explain its decision to pull its branch by Aug. 11, and offer customers help in learning how to “take advantage of all the mobile and online services” available to them.

As dozens of Eastern Shore residents – some of whom have been branch customers for decades – queued to condemn the shutdown, calling it everything from “disappointing” to “ruthless,” Scotiabank’s District Vice-President for Northeast Nova Scotia Peter Fitzner said: “I can share that we intend to leave an ABM in the community after Aug. 11. We are currently finalizing the details and location.”

But, if the announcement meant to mollify the bank’s already angry rural constituency, it missed its mark by a country mile.

Echoing the sentiments of nearly every call-in guest, past Dartmouth Mayor and former member of Halifax Regional Municipal (HRM) council Gloria McCluskey declared: “I think you are being very ruthless in what you are doing today.”

Added HRM Councillor for Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore David Hendsbee in a Facebook message: “They put their name up in lights on [the former Halifax] Metro Centre [but] they won’t keep up a shingle in this part of the county.”

Addressing Fitzner during the call-in, Sheet Harbour and Area Chamber of Commerce President and former Canadian senator Tom McInnis said: “What has happened here has been a great shock… As I told you the other day, I own three businesses [here]… There are 600 establishments within a 50-metre radius of Sheet Harbour. The bank plays a pivotal role in attracting and retaining economic investments in people… Where’s the social conscience here?”

While Fitzner conceded that the decision to close the branch – announced on Jan. 12 – was “difficult,” he said it was “necessitated by the rapidly changing bank landscape in Canada. Changing customer needs and preferences [which] are driving profound change… and we’re not immune to these changes. More customers are demanding convenience as it relates to how they interact with us and are increasingly choosing to bank online with their mobile devices.”

According to Scotiabank’s news release, the move is part of a larger program – which also entails shutting down the Sydney Mines and Westville branches later this year – to bring “advice and solutions to more customers in more locations across Atlantic Canada. These solutions will enhance Scotiabank’s 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.”

In the statement, Scotiabank’s Regional Senior Vice President for Atlantic Canada David Noel said: “Our branches remain a cornerstone of how we serve our customers. 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.”

Fitzner reiterated that message at the call-in, assuring participants that the bank’s “teams are committed to assisting each of our customers through this transition. We also continue to add to our services available to all Canadians in all communities – whether that’s remote, and mobile banking options, digital and online services, or improved telephone banking. Our teams will be available to help you learn how to take advantage of all the mobile and online services available to you.”

Some callers, however, pointed out that the closure will mean either travelling to Scotiabank‘s branch in Stellarton (a two-hour round trip by car) to do their banking, or switching to East Coast Credit Union in Sheet Harbour. They were also skeptical that the move to online transactions would appeal to a generally older population in a part of the province where internet connectivity remains notoriously unreliable.

“At my age, it’s too difficult for me to travel,” said Gilbert, an 87-year-old resident of nearby Mooseland. “Did anybody consider the importance of the area, particularly when you’re dealing with a lot of older people from Ecum Secum clean through to Ship Harbour? This will really hurt us and hurt us bad.”

Added Rhonda in Sheet Harbour: “I do a lot of transfers from one bank to another. I won’t be online banking – I guarantee you that – nor telephone banking… So [I’ll] be changing banking to the credit union across the street.”

Fitzner said that he “knew for a fact that enhancements are coming around fiber optic Internet connectivity to households and businesses in and around the Sheet Harbour area over the course of 12 months, so that might help the transition.” He added: “The team at the Sheet Harbour [branch] are exceptionally good at explaining all of the options to you.”

Many worried about the fate of the branch’s seven Sheet Harbour employees, some of whom, reportedly, have been offered jobs at other branches in the province. Said Fitzner: “They are all spectacular employees. I can’t comment on how we will support them – to protect their privacy and confidentiality – other than to reiterate that we will treat them fairly and equitably and support them depending on the decisions that they make in their lives.”

All participants in the call-in were deeply concerned about the message Scotiabank (one of Canada’s five biggest financial institutions, with assets totalling $1.2 trillion and 2021 profits of $10 billion, compared with $7 billion the year before) was sending.

“I live away from Sheet Harbour, but I plan to retire there,” said a caller. “It seems to me that this is a corporate decision that shows no feeling for what’s actually happening in the area. This area is growing. I have several properties there. I had one for sale and it’s now sold. You would not believe the number of people from the Metro Toronto area and other areas of Ontario that are desperate to relocate to a place like Sheet Harbour.”

McInnis noted that Sheet Harbour has been on an economic roll for years. “We just opened a $32 million, P-12 school, one of the only schools in Nova Scotia that has increased enrollment. We have $10 million lifestyle centre that will commence construction this year. Northern Fiber is a going concern, and our fisheries have never been stronger. Since 2017, residential sales have been up 181 per cent. Now we say our only bank is leaving town? It doesn’t put a very good light on the community.”

McInnis acknowledged that the bank’s decision to retain an ABM in the community after it closes the branch is “one thing… I guess… We thank you for that.” But, he said, it could never replace a proper branch. He added: “Would you [Fitzner] meet with a representative group [here], not in a shouting match, but to have some understanding as to why this has happened?”

Fitzner responded: “You know, there’s not much I can do beyond the comments I have already made. The decision is a final one.”

Regarding the promised ABM, he said, “It is our intention to place a machine in the community. But we do know it can take several months for that to occur. As soon as we nail down the specifics, we will be sharing that.”