No Spanakopita on Cortes

Norm Gibbons

By Norm Gibbons

This last winter Denise and I spent a few months in a small coastal village in Mexico. The population is similar to that on Cortes Island though people are concentrated in the town of La Manzanilla, not spread out as on our island. We very quickly realized that the town lacked essential infrastructure services: no gas station, post office, bank, library, bus depot, or ATM. No businesses accepted credit cards. We had entered a CASH ONLY society.

To get our pesos, we traveled, usually every two weeks, on a local bus to the town of Melaque, a twenty-minute ride. There we stood in line at the ATM and eventually filled our wallets. In retrospect, we adapted quite easily to this old way of doing business: paying with money rather than credit.

The 2006 Canada census records a population total of 1042 individuals for Cortes Island. The latest 2011 census is 1195, a 13% increase over the five year period. Between 2011-2014 we can only guess about population data. In a discussion with a local real estate person, she had the following to say, “I don’t have a sense of the overall change. Some families have left for schooling reasons, but others are moving to Cortes. It is the same for retirees, some are leaving, while others are buying here.”

One wonders if the recent rash of cost increases for essential services on Cortes Island, and in some instances, the complete withdrawal of services, will have an effect on our population base. Has the infrastructure pendulum reached the terminus of its arc? Or, are we simply witnessing anomalies that don’t fit into the multi-decade pattern of service expansion on our island?

On April, 3, 2014, Adrian Legin, President and CEO of the Coastal Community Credit Union, announced – without membership consultation, “I would like to let you know that Coastal Community Credit Union has made the difficult decision to close branches and ATMs in Alert Bay, Sointula and Cortes Island, effective July 5, 2014. Effective that day, we will also be reducing the hours of operation of our Quadra Island branch.”


She went on in boilerplate fashion with comforting statements like, “While these were difficult decisions…” and “Decisions were based on comprehensive reviews…” and “I am confident the actions we are taking….”

An unexpected sentence came in the final paragraph of her letter, when we learned that, “We remain financially strong.”

Reaction to this letter was quick from all four effected communities. Requests for reviews of the decision, meetings between members and the board of directors, and intervention by elected local representatives fell on stone-deaf ears. For a particularly well-written response, please refer to this letter written by Miranda Holmes: here.

To be fair, Dale Henderson, interim Cortes Branch manager, brought an optimistic tone to the debate. He commented in a letter on the Tideline, “When it comes to banking, simple, time-saving conveniences are important to many of you. That’s why Coastal Community is bringing you Deposit Anywhere™-a free mobile banking app that makes cheque depositing a snap! And if you already have the latest version of Coastal Community’s Mobile Banking App, you’re all set to begin using this neat new feature when it launches. Tap. Snap. Send. Relax.”

Apparently if we have an extremely smart phone or tablet with the app installed, then we need only take a photo back and front of the cheque we wish to deposit and then follow a long list of cyberitic instructions. Obviously this will be an incredible convenience.

Given the termination of service by the credit union, perhaps their new logo should be: “Together we won’t do great things.”

So how will this affect us? Will we go back to pre-bank days, when we cashed our cheques at the local stores, ran tabs at local businesses and paid them once per month, loaded up on cash if we made a trip to town, secured our loans and mortgages with the big banks, used our credit and debit cards (if we had any) in urban areas only, or will we barter more than we presently do? If one takes a trip further back into the annals of local history, I remember that the Klahoose people would row over to Refuge Cove General Store without any money, but off Centre Island stop at the reef, jig 200 pounds of ling cod (it only took 15 minutes), sell them at the fish buying station tied up at Refuge Cove dock and then go to the store for all their provisions. I guess some of these options are no longer possible.

Perhaps, we are brewing a tempest in an herbal teapot. Will the coming adjustment be no more than a minor inconvenience as it was for us this winter in La Manzanilla?

Coupled with other recent changes though, the transition could be more difficult than imagined. For one thing, it cost us fifty cents to take the bus to Melaque, whereas now a round trip for driver to Campbell River using the discount provision in the BC Ferries Experience card, along with the “partial”, no longer “full”, discount for seniors, the fuel surcharge tax and the new fare rate structure, the cost is $62.50. Without the discount provisions, the fare is about $90.00. So, factoring in ferry costs, we had better need to go to the “River” for more than banking purposes.

This banking catastrophe balloons in our imagination if we also include rate increases by Canada Post (we can send a book for the cost of a book), rate increases by BC Hydro now that our consumption of energy is monitored efficiently with Smart meters, increased property taxes, decreased home values, usury interest charges on credit cards, soaring food costs, soaring fuel costs, soaring freight charges…the list is so long why bother continuing. In this period of “low” inflation, our government tells us they are more worried about deflation, and thinks the Canadian economy would do much better with an annual 2% hike in the inflation adjusted rate.

We have seen our alternative school close, the shellfish industry decline, the house building boom turn to gloom, grades taught in the Cortes Island Elementary/Jr. Secondary school reduced, the medical clinic has lost its doctor and practitioner nurse, the local truck freight company is “off-the-road” permanently, stores are for sale, houses for sale with REDUCED prices, our first aid attendants are paid a pittance for being on call, ditto for the firefighters, and our library books disappeared one night in a midnight raid, but we got them back in a lovely new building though no longer in the heart of the community. Recently a health inspector came to our paradise isle and shutdown the food vendors, who have been supplying us with quality, delicious food at reasonable prices at our Friday Market. Was the risk too great that someone might get sick on those Joyful Spanakopitas?
Joyful Spanakopita

The mini-banking crisis on Cortes Island comes at a time when straws can break a camel’s back. People come and people go. Families leave because the educational opportunities are withering away and retirees leave because support services are also withering. But it seems that they are being replaced. The population density may have not changed much on our island. We just don’t know unless we do some serious research.

What is certain is that life is a school of probabilities. If the population density decreases, then we will see a continued escalation in costs, reductions in service, an elimination of some services, a fall off in tourist based traffic and a self-fulfilling exodus of residents. In La Manzanilla, the town’s people await a growth in services, even though they are particularly happy with the way things are. Here on Cortes Island, we have been through a mini-infrastructure growth phase and adapted to the conveniences and pleasures of modern day living. Turning the clock back will be difficult for some, impossible for some; others will welcome the transition.