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TORONTO – Ethnic credit unions serve a special niche market wherever they operate. The Toronto area has nine such credit unions: Estonian Credit Union, Finnish Credit Osuuspankki Union, Parama Lithuanian Credit Union, Polish Alliance (Brant) Credit Union, Portuguese Canadian Credit Union, Slovenia Credit Union, Taiwanese Credit Union, Ukrainian Credit Union and Ukrainian St. Catherines Credit Union. By their very nature of limiting themselves to one small segment of the population, their growth can be limited, but not so limited that they can’t meet their members’ savings and borrowing needs. The size of the nine credit unions varies. The Finnish Credit Union with savings of CND$30 (US$26.7) million has a small member base of 2,000 people. A larger ethnic credit union is Ukrainian Credit Union, which has assets of CND$280 (US$249) million and provides 20,000 members with a full range of activities. The age of the ethnic credit unions varies. Ukrainian St. Catherines celebrated its 60th birthday in March 2006. It was formed when immigrants established cooperatives to create a better future for themselves in their new country. The credit union was another one of those cooperatives. The Taiwanese Credit Union is one of the newest and was started in the 1970s. They all were formed for much the same reasons, to provide financial services to those who were not able to receive them from traditional banks. Parama Lithuanian’s initial goal was to help immigrants buy homes when it began operations in 1952 in the basement of a community hall. Today it has an asset base of CND$140 (US$124.6) million. The Taiwanese Credit Union served mainly new graduates who did not want to return to Taiwan after completing their studies. Because they had no credit history and because they were limited to the amount of money they could take out of their home country, they needed help in financially kick-starting their lives. For immigrants, the ability to use their own language in making banking transactions with rules they are unfamiliar with can be a distinct advantage. Everyone must be bilingual at the Finnish Credit Union. As the manager Antero Elo said, especially the older people like using their own language in discussing financial matters. He pointed out that sometimes it is a mixture. One of his members did not understand the Finnish word for Mutual Funds, but knew the English. Mutual Funds hadn’t existed when the member had left Finland. Some of the credit unions have bilingual Web sites, some have monolingual, either English or the mother tongue language of the membership. However sometimes language knowledge isn’t always enough. It can be a handicap. When 24 Portuguese immigrants formed a credit union in 1966, they had high hopes, but their language was a barrier as was their lack of knowledge of Canadian Banking regulations. The credit union had grown to only $250,000 by 1998. It was decided then they needed experienced leadership, which they hired. Eight years later, Portuguese Canadian Credit Union has just under CND$40 (US$35.6) million dollars in assets. Ethnic credit unions, even more than other credit unions, can fall victim to an aging membership as the immigrants’ age and their children become integrated and use other credit unions and banks. However, an aging population also can provide opportunities for special services. A staff member from the Finnish Credit Union spends a half day a week visiting the Finnish Nursing Home, bringing cash to members and arranging other financial transactions for those that cannot get out. They are trying to attract first- and second-generation members. Manager Elo said he noticed, although he has no proof, that the children of immigrants tend to become very Canadian, but their children try and recapture their roots, and this is the group that forms his younger members. Being an ethnic credit union doesn’t mean limiting services, although the Estonian Credit Union does not operate office hours during the summer. Ethnic credit unions have the same financial products as any other credit union tailored to the needs of their members. Sometimes it does mean that there are special events. The Finnish Credit Union just had a party to celebrate the Finnish version of St. Jean’s day on June 23rd, which is marked by bonfires. No money was burned.

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