At the end of the 19th century, Québec's population was 1.6 million. Most people at that time were French speaking and living in rural areas.
Farmers were in a difficult position. The past decades had been marked by a series of poor harvests; the cost of supplies was high and income was low. Many farmers were forced to take on heavy debts.
Due to the high birth rate, the rural parishes of the Saint Lawrence valley were overpopulated and though new zones were opened up, they could not accommodate the surplus labour, causing many people to migrate to the cities and to New England.
Conditions were no better in the factories: salaries were low with unstable demand for labour. For the most part, workers lived in filthy tenements. At the time, Montreal was one of the most unhealthy cities in the world with a very high infant mortality rate.
Since banks would only do business with merchants, industries and wealthy families, working class people had little access to savings and loans. Many were victims of usurious lenders who, free of all constraint, often ended up as owners of their
unfortunate clients' property.
As a French language stenographer at the House of Commons, Alphonse Desjardins became aware of this phenomenon during a House debate: a member of parliament described a case where the interest charged was up to 3,000%! Shocked by the injustice, in April, 1897, Alphonse Desjardins decided to find out how such practices were avoided elsewhere in the world.
His research lead him to a book entitled People's Banks, by Henry W. Wolff, that described the people's banks and rural caisses in Europe. He wrote to the author, who referred him to the officers of those institutions.
Through correspondence with them, he came up with a project for a new kind of savings and loan cooperative that would enable the working class to become its own banker! Ultimately, Desjardins planned to fight usury and provide his community with an instrument for economic organization.
At his home in Lévis, he met with a small group of fellow citizens to whom he presented his idea and with whom he defined the statutes of the future caisse populaire. That caisse was founded on December 6, 1900.
The founder had several closely-related objectives:
One hundred years later, the same ideal still motivates the vast network of caisses: to offer people's financial services on the basis of people's savings!