This Week in History


The caisse populaire: Desjardins' Dream

For the week of Monday December 2, 2002

On December 6, 1900, the “Caisse populaire de Lévis” was founded. It was the first savings and credit co-operative on the American continent, and the brainchild of Alphonse Desjardins, who brought his idea to life with the help of a few fellow citizens.

Alphonse and Dorimène Desjardins:<br>The birth of the co-operative movement

Alphonse and Dorimène Desjardins:
The birth of the co-operative movement

© Canadian Postal Society, 1999.
Reproduced with permission.

Alphonse Desjardins was born on November 5, 1854, in Lévis, Quebec. The eighth of 15 children, he was raised in poverty. This no doubt explains why he left school at the age of 15, despite his interest in learning. In 1879, he married Dorimène Roy, who later became his work partner and with whom he had 10 children.

In 1892, Alphonse was hired as a French stenographer for the House of Commons. It was during a House debate of a bill to fight usurious practices that Desjardins recognized the shortcomings of the credit system that affected thousands of Québécois in the working and farming classes. Interested particularly in European credit co-operatives, he read extensively on the subject and conducted international research to see whether that kind of system could be introduced in Quebec. On September 20, 1900, he gathered a few fellow citizens and formed a committee that drafted the constitution and bylaws of what would become the “Caisse populaire de Lévis.”

Home of Alphonse-Desjardins<br>Lévis, Québec

Home of Alphonse-Desjardins
Lévis, Québec

© Jean-Marie Paquin

The very first caisse populaire opened its doors for business on January 23, 1901. Its primary purpose was to offer a credit system based on people’s savings. Its members were co-owners and administrators, and all decisions were made democratically. The co-operative promised savings and a contingency fund and did not encourage any non-essential purchases. By November 1901, the cooperative already had 721 members (women, men and children).

With the valuable assistance of Dorimène and other colleagues, Alphonse Desjardins took steps to gain legal recognition for the co-operatives, which he finally obtained in 1906, in Quebec. The movement spread and Desjardins played a role in founding 163 co-operatives during his career, including 136 in Quebec, 18 in Ontario and 9 in the United States. By October 31, 1920, when their primary founder passed away, the co-operatives had more than 31,000 members.

As of June 1, 2002, the Desjardins movement had a total of 726 co-operatives, in various locations in Quebec and in a number of other Francophone communities of Canada. Their founder, Alphonse Desjardins, has been declared a person of national historic significance. Canadians wishing to learn more about the history of the caisse populaire may now visit Alphonse Desjardins House in Lévis.

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