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Still blazing trails

Central 1 Credit Union created The Dorothy Watson CYL Bursary, supporting emerging leaders in the cooperative system while honouring the illustrious, 37-year career of Dorothy Watson herself.

Back in the mid 1980s, when Dorothy Watson was CEO of Ottawa Women’s Credit Union (OWCU), its original mandate — closed bond, for women only — didn’t sit very well with some people. One morning, Watson was notified that the credit union had been “pelted with eggs.” Who would do such a thing? Watson had her suspicions. Recently, a man had come into the credit union, which hosted a gallery of women’s artwork that rotated monthly, and scrawled a bilious remark in the comments book criticizing the all-female membership. Watson had covered the nasty comment with white liquid paper. Using whiteout thinner, she uncovered the scribbling for police. The handwriting sample provided enough evidence to nab the egg-lobbing malefactor. “He had a thing against what he saw as pro-abortionists; he was mixing up what we were all about,” Watson recalls with a wry laugh from her home in Etobicoke on picturesque Lake Ontario.

Watson, the middle of five raised on a dairy farm, had come to helm the credit union after a meteoric rise in the system following an equally stellar undergrad career at York University’s Glendon Campus. There, she achieved not only honour degrees in French and political science but was elected student council president. Upon graduating, with the 1980’s global recession well entrenched, Watson joined a temp agency. Her first placement was with The Co-operative Trust Company of Canada. Shortly after joining the company, she took a course on the philosophy and principles of credit unions, which set her on a trajectory of ethically minded service that ended a few months ago when she retired from Central 1 Credit Union following a 37-year career.

A natural teacher — and an influencer before social media made the term popular — Watson’s initial work with The Co-operative Trust as a woman in her early 20s took her throughout eastern Ontario, instructing credit union staff in the minutiae of RSP legislation. She infused a potentially bland subject with energy and enthusiasm, so much so that the general manager of OWCU — who was taking Watson’s course — offered her a job. Within two years, Watson worked her way into that same position at OWCU and entrenched what would be her hallmark: helping others. In so doing, she became a role model for women throughout the credit union system.

“I see the support of women as a core value.” – Dorothy Watson

OWCU — like other credit unions — gave women loans when banks still demanded co-signatures from husbands or parents. It also provided on-the-job training for women on social assistance or who were new immigrant Canadians. A small loans program for women on welfare was also a core service. Under Watson’s leadership, OWCU started seminars for women, training them in personal finance and how to develop business plans for a start-up. Subsequently, assets more than doubled in four years and membership rose exponentially. “I’ve always encouraged women and supported them in business. I see
the support of women as a core value,” Watson says.

Watson ended up being headhunted by Credit Union Central of Ontario, becoming its assistant vice-president of operations, helping implement major initiatives including establishing Cusource, where
she served on the board for several years. Under Watson’s lead, Ontario Central more than doubled its satisfaction rating from member credit unions by nurturing a “service-excellence culture,” achieving a greater-than 80 percent approval rating within several years, up from 25 percent when she first came on board.

Such success, says Watson, came from honouring fundamental principles: democracy and service to members. Even today, with the faintly dystopian spectre of artificial intelligence taking over society,
including finance, such principles can ensure AI remains a tool, not an autocrat. AI,Watson says, must be “developed for the benefit of society. The credit union system might want to develop AI algorithms to serve that purpose of putting members’ needs first.”

Nurturing the next generation of cooperative system leaders is even more important than technology or AI, Watson says. To further this mandate, Central 1 created The Dorothy Watson CYL Bursary, supporting emerging leaders in the cooperative system. It will be used to help a teenager attend the summer Co-operative Education Centre in Aylmer, Ont. Every year, budding young leaders aged 14-18 spend one week developing leadership skills that are oriented towards the credit union and cooperative system. The Dorothy Watson bursary will put a teenager, at a cost of $1,000, through training for a week. Watson is asking those in the cooperative system, including credit unions, to contribute to the bursary, helping secure a thriving system by nurturing the next generation of leaders. “We need leaders who have a vision of a great collective credit union system,” says Watson. “We need strong united credit unions, not more banks.”

The bursary also helps ensure Watson’s many contributions to the system continues, despite retirement. Many challenges lie ahead for credit unions, she says. But by sticking to core fundamental values, Watson has shown that neither pitched eggs nor the spectre of AI can upend credit unions from continuing along a forward-looking path. ◊