Photo by Michael Weaver
While the Gulf and Fraser Fishermen’s Credit Union may no longer have an iconic building in Steveston, the bas relief panels continue on and so does the institution, now called G and F Financial Group.
The single location in Steveston has become two spread throughout the municipality, a branch on No. 1 Road across the street from Seafair Shopping Centre and the other in Richmond Centre.
With roots in the collective movement of the Dirty Thirties, GF first became a credit union for fishers and those working in the fishing industry in 1940.
In Jan DeGrass’s book on the history of the GF, Safe Haven, she quotes an early member, Agnes Hill, as saying: “When we first started the credit union, we dedicated 10 cents a month. We pledged from each member and this was quite a bit to pledge. If anyone couldn’t make it somebody else would put in for him until he got it.”
DeGrass says it took four years for the credit union to build up its first $6,000.
DeGrass describes how the atmosphere was different from that at banks. When someone came in, if they didn’t remember their account number, one of the tellers would. In those days, everything was scribed by a human hand with a pen or at a typewriter.
Robyn Larsen, GF manager of marketing, offers a definition.
“With a credit union, we’re like a bank but different in that we can provide all the same services and products that a bank can but we are owned by our members so we’re not there for the bottom line to make sure some shareholder gets a good dividend; we’re here to do the best for each other.”
DeGrass also tells of the modest and can-do attitude of the bankers who worked for the credit union. The staff wanted a coffee table so the assistant manager bought a door, put four legs on it and it became the spot around which the Saturday communal lunch would be held. A staff member would be sent out to buy sliced meat and bread. While eating, the rule was, the closest staff member to the wicket, regardless of rank, got up to help when a member came in.
By 1963, GF had 2,627 members and over $3,500,000 in assets. The emphasis was still on saving for emergencies or saving up for something.
GF helped set policies outside their own organization. The credit union’s fish boat lending policies and standardized fish boat appraisals created the template for other credit unions lending money secured by boats.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s when former federal cabinet minister, Pat Carney, was leaving elected government that, as a parting action she is proud of to this day, CMHC started guaranteeing a boat or floating home mortgage. Before that, all the risk fell to banks and credit unions.
The credit union innovated in other areas too. According to Larsen, GF was the first financial institution to loan money to a woman in her own name.
The modest financial institution has had brushes with fame. The original head office of GF was in Vancouver. In their newer headquarter, opened in 1968 also with the distinctive panels, spare office space was rented to a lawyer, William Deverell. After leaving that space, the lawyer went on to a writing career winning the Dashiell Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime writing in North America and the Arthur Ellis Award twice for best Canadian crime novel. (With macabre irony, the award uses the name once assumed by all federal hangmen in Canada.)
The credit union’s other touch with fame is salmon fisher, Lewis Bublé, who is the current president and chair of GF. His son, Michael Bublé, not following in his father’s fishing footsteps, sings for a living.
According to DeGrass, many fishers drove from Steveston into Vancouver to bank at GF so, on May 26, 1978 sod was turned for the Steveston branch on Chatham Street.
Richmond business was good enough that the space was doubled in size in 1987.
In 2014 the site was redeveloped and the branch moved out of Steveston to its current location across from Seafair on No. 1 Road.
Much has changed in the financial institution’s 77 years, from a credit union only for those involved in fishing and their families, to today’s open door policy. Innovation continues today with online banking and smartphone apps while still offering first name service at the branch level.
Building on their humble beginnings to today’s 15 branches, the credit union has grown gradually and cautiously, because, “Everyone who banks here is an owner,” says Larsen, “That’s why I love working here. “
Like other BC-based credit unions, Larsen says, “We’re local. All the decisions are made locally. It doesn’t have to go back to Ontario.”
The distinctive panels by Leonard Epp, from the original GF building on Chatham St. and Third Ave., showing the commercial fishery history of Steveston Village, were saved by the developer and installed on the new building’s exterior and in the lobby.
The distinctive anchor that sat out front, lives on at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Museum within site of the former Steveston home of GF.
It turns out, the anchor is just one of a number of projects GF has supported at the cannery built in 1894. Mimi Horita, marketing visitor services manager for the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society expressed gratitude for GF’s support that has included exhibits, special events, and projects over many years. “They help us to continue our mission to preserve and promote the history of Canada's West Coast fishing industry, which is very fitting for a company whose roots are tied so closely with our local fishing history and community,” says Horita.