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Guichet Voisin – Adventures in banking

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Listen to 5 : Guichet-Voisin – Adventures in banking

The true story that inspired a country song from this American immigrant to Québéc.

In 1996, I moved from Vermont to Québec, bringing my freelance design business along with me. My Québécois husband and I opened an account at the village branch of the local bank, technically a coöperative, the one you’ll find in nearly every Québec village. Each branch or “succursale” functions as a kind of small, independent business with its own hours, policies and quirks. At the time, the company slogan translated to “This is not a bank” in English – a statement that I came to agree with wholeheartedly.

So, we made an appointment. Despite the fact that our tiny town only has a population of about 1200, it was a week before they could fit us in. On the day of, we arrived and were ushered into a small office. We sat down face to face with the bank representative. She was very friendly, and after closing the door behind us and arranging some papers on her desk, she proceeded to light up a cigarette and puff away, filling the room with an uninterrupted cloud of smoke as she carefully explained the bank’s services. Eyes watering, trying not to cough for fear of appearing rude, we signed an endless pile of papers, grabbed our new cheque book and exited quickly, desperate for a gulp of fresh air.

The province of Québec banned workplace and restaurant smoking in May of 2006, more than ten years after my former place of residence, Vermont, put one of the first statewide bans in the US into effect. Upon our arrival, I found it tough re-adapting to a smoking environment where people still regularly wanted to light up in my house. This put me in the awkward position of trying to maintain a humble newcomer status as I gently asked guests to please step outside to smoke. It took a few more years before they could also be convinced to deposit their cigarette butts into the old olive oil can provided for that purpose, rather than tossing them on the ground as a unique welcome mat.

Shortly after the account was opened, I visited the bank to exchange some U.S. dollars for the more useful (and colorful) Canadian variety, I went during my daily lunch break. And so did half the town. For what seemed an eternity, I joined the long line of people who appeared stoically resigned to the wait. I had a lot of time to look around and noticed and counted seven employees and four teller windows. Three of the windows sported what looked like small, engraved name plaques that said “Guichet Voisin”. I was pondering this unusual name and the fact that there were three of them in the same bank branch. I didn’t find this entirely surprising in a place where it is common to find five pages of the local phonebook devoted to the same first and last names. You pretty much need to know the phone number already in order to look it up. It finally dawned on me that the words on those plaques weren’t names at all, but in fact said “Next window”. Except for the teller at the one open window, the other employees carefully avoided direct eye contact with the people waiting in line (now down to a dozen), a tactic that has been mastered and perfected by overworked waitresses worldwide.

When I finally made it to the window, the fun really began. My French was far from perfect as I struggled to explain that I wanted to convert 100 US dollars to Canadian currency. The bank teller looked confused, whether by my accent or by the transaction, I wasn’t sure. She left me at the window to consult another teller. I could hear them going back and forth about whether they were buying or selling and what formula to apply. Finally, they figured out what had to be done, to the relief of the nine people now behind me who awoke from their boredom to  listen with obvious interest to the entire exchange. It was shortly after this visit that I would hear one employee whisper to another “c’est “l’Anglaise” (It’s the English lady) upon entering the bank.

Like lots of people back in the day, we sometimes purchased American Express Travelers checks before heading off on a big trip. This was before everyone had a credit card – and even if you did have one, your credit card didn’t always function properly in other countries. These handy checks could be used just like cash and were accepted nearly everywhere. I had a hundred dollars’ worth left over from a trip to Scotland and had decided to cash them in. When my turn finally came, the teller was already looking nervous. I explained that I wanted to cash my traveler’s checks. She looked at them. Then she looked at me. She left me at the window to speak with the bank manager. When she came back, she explained to me that I would have to deposit them and that they would be cleared in thirty days. I tried, in my still-not-so-great French, to explain that they were like cash, there was no “clearing” of the check because they were from American Express, to whom I’d already paid their face value. Nope. Not happening. I had to wait until my next trip to Vermont.

PayPal had begun to come into popularity as an online payment method. Canada barely even had a mail-order industry and people here weren’t as credit-card-crazy as Americans, which resulted in their being a bit late to the game when it came to ecommerce. A lot of my website clients were still skeptical about online sales as a strategy. Accepting online payment terrified some of them, even though, to this day, most payment fraud still occurs at physical locations, like when you hand someone your card in a restaurant or use it in an unknown machine that has been tampered with. I was already selling CDs online and really wanted to get paid at the moment of purchase rather than dealing with checks, which took a long time to arrive and were often in US dollars, meaning they wouldn’t clear my Canadian bank’s US dollar savings account for a month. Even Canadian checks would take a week or more. A family friend, who at the time was president of one of Canada’s largest banks, assured me that no check in North America actually took longer than three days to clear. Sitting on a check was just a strategy for banks to earn interest off of deposits.

I followed PayPal’s instructions for adding my bank account. It explained that once I’d provided all the necessary details – account number, transit number, etc. PayPal would make two tiny deposits into my account and I could check the account activity to see when they cleared. Then I would log back in to PayPal to confirm the amounts of those two little deposits, a pretty clever proof-of-identity technique. If the amounts matched, it would mean that they had successfully connected with my bank account. I spent a week checking bank transactions but nothing showed up, so I once again braved the line at the bank and asked the next available teller to confirm to me that the information I’d provided to PayPal was correct. What was PayPal? Her expression told me that she couldn’t understand why I would want to connect my bank account to something as questionable as the internet. After much discussion and no solution, I returned home and began Googling “can’t connect bank to PayPal” in earnest. This was twenty years ago and there wasn’t as much content online. Today, I can search for “How to build a table-top handloom from old vinyl records” and be rewarded –  in milliseconds – with endless links to sites explaining the process, including how-to videos and photos of the finished project, as well as the four-foot-long, Beatles-themed wool scarf I could then weave on it. After an hour of searching the infant internet I finally came across a discussion forum where somebody mentioned that certain bank accounts actually include an extra digit that could often be found on the cheque, all alone, to the left of the printed account number. Sure enough, there it was, so I reinitiated the PayPal connection process and 24 hours later, the deposits finally appeared. When I called the bank to share this information with them, in case others asked, they remained skeptical.

One day, I deposited a check via the ATM (I had learned to avoid the teller window and they were surely relieved by this). When I verified my balance, it seemed lower than I remembered. Luckily, we still kept a running balance in our checkbook back then, not yet completely trusting digital accounting practices. I returned home and a few hours later, checked my balance again by logging into my account online, a recent improvement to the banks’ services. Now, my balance appeared higher than my running tally said it should be. I went to bed and in the morning, I checked again. It had changed back to what it was before I deposited the check. Hmmm. I forgot about it, and a few days later, my monthly statement arrived in the mail. The daily transactions showed a check deposit of $1020.90. The next line showed something like $120 being removed as an adjustment. The next line then showed $1000.90 credited as another adjustment, followed by another for $20.90. A few more ins and outs featuring amounts that bore random, numeric resemblance to the original deposit followed. Because it was too hard to untangle, I half-heartedly headed over to the bank to try and get some clarity. When I showed the teller my bank statement with its incomprehensible ins and outs, she turned a bit red and began to explain that she had mistakenly entered the incorrect amount from the check I had deposited via the ATM (this was back when the bank still manually verified all ATM deposits). She had then tried to correct her error and instead made another error, a slip of the ol’ finger on the keyboard. And so on, with several additional finger-slips apparently occurring. After careful review, I was able to confirm that the statement had been sent out prior to the final correction and the actual amount of the check had indeed been deposited and the actual bank balance now matched my checkbook.

As a designer, my job involves working with artists and cultural organizations in Québec and across Canada. One day, I received payment from a client in Whitehorse, Yukon, so I zipped over to the bank to make a deposit. As usual, there was no line for the ATM. It wasn’t popular with the older folks who made up the bulk of the midday queue. This was still before the days of smartphones and tablets, and most of our town didn’t even have wired internet connections – until very recently, slow, satellite internet was the option du jour.

A couple of days later, while I was eating dinner, the phone rang. It was someone from the bank, informing me in what sounded like a somewhat indignant tone that I couldn’t deposit US currency in a Canadian account. The caller went on to say that they had been obliged to return the check via the mail and that I would be charged a fee for the offense and for the services required due to my error. When I asked what check they were talking about, since I couldn’t recall any recent American projects, it turned out to be the one I’d received from my client in Whitehorse. I tried, without any luck, to explain that the check was most definitely Canadian but they would have none of it. We hung up, and the next morning, I drove over, Rand McNally Road Atlas in hand, to prove to them that Yukon was indeed in Canada. My client found the whole thing pretty funny and sent me a new check, which they accepted, but on subsequent visits to the bank, I always had the impression that they thought I’d pulled one over on them, and they were never quite going to forgive me for it.

As an immigrant, I had tried my best to follow the time-honoured advice of “When in Rome” but after these and a few more adventures in hometown banking, I finally gave up. I ended up writing a country song about my experiences (because what other kind of song can you write about something like this?) and recorded it with my band. Then I opened an account in another bank. While times may be a-changin’, to this day, when  I pull out my “foreign” looking debit card at checkout, it is not unusual for the cashier to ask me what kind of card it is, sometimes taking it in her hand and turning it over to inspect it suspiciously.