First Nations Bank of Canada is now the first Canadian bank to be majority Aboriginal-owned, with aboriginal shareholders holding 91 per cent of the bank – with 19.7 per cent owned by the Cree Regional Authority Board of Compensation and the James Bay Eeyou Corporation.

Founded in 1996, First Nations Bank is the brainchild of the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, and the Toronto-Dominion Bank. With the October 29 transaction, TD Bank becomes a minority shareholder, and will continue to hold a 9 per cent interest in common shares. TD will also continue providing services to First Nations Bank, including the use of its vast network of automatic banking machines.

“The intent from day one was to create an Aboriginal-owned and controlled independent bank,” said Keith Martell, Executive Chair of the First Nations Bank of Canada.

This was precisely what the Cree Regional Authority Board of Compensation was looking for when they became a major shareholder in the bank in 2000.

Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council, also sits on the Board of Directors of the First Nations Bank. Although many of the big banks provide financial services through designated aboriginal branches, Namagoose points out that none of those banks actually have aboriginal ownership.

It is aboriginal ownership which is the key to a healthy Cree economy, Namagoose told the Nation.

“Crees have always wanted to control their economy. They’ve made great speeches to that effect,” he said. “We have a Cree airline, a Cree construction business, and we need a lot more other Cree businesses. Financial institutions are the next phase that aboriginal people in Canada should get into.”

Although there is currently a full-service branch of First Nations Bank in Chisasibi, established in 1998, the only other service centre of the bank is in Nemaska. It is up to the individual band councils to decide if they want to transfer their business to the bank.

Jack Blacksmith, Chairman of the Cree Board of Compensation, believes that Cree ownership in First Nations Bank also means that there will be more support for long-term business-oriented projects that are unique to the Cree Nation. This fills a gap in the Cree economy, Blacksmith says.

“We do have funding to develop ourselves in terms of social aspects, but there’s not so much money earmarked for economic development.”

After only 10 years in operation, the total assets of the bank are estimated at over $209 million.

Other major shareholders in the bank include Aboriginal groups from the Yukon, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well as the Atuqtuarvik Corporation of Nunavut and the Gwich’in Tribal Council of the Northwest Territories.

Keith Martell also explained the importance of financial institutions to nation-building.

“There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have nationally-owned banks that are owned or controlled within their country,” Martell said. “Financial services help you fulfill your goals as a nation. If you’re not in control of those levels of financial service or power or direction, you’re at a disadvantage.”

What makes First Nations Bank different from the other major financial institutions in Canada, Martell told the Nation, is that their primary goal is the enhancement of the Aboriginal economy. For example, while commercial account managers in most major Canadian banks might handle 100 to 150 business accounts, the same account managers at First Nations Bank would have about 50 business accounts. This is because the higher number of start-up businesses in many First Nations communities means there is more work involved to ensure their success.

“At the end of the day we find good business,” Martell said. “It may cost us a little bit more to deliver it, but ultimately that’s what our customers and our shareholders want.”