Corporate Canada’s hidden treasures
The statue of Patria, a memorial to honour the sacrifices made by employees during World War I, stands in the atrium of the Bank of Montreal head office in Old Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photos by Bloomberg)
The soul of Canada’s oldest bank lies beneath the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal in a vault protected by the guardians of history. At the Bank of Montreal’s head office, a ’60s-era edifice overlooking the Place d’Armes square in this Quebec city, an elevator descends four floors to the subterranean home of one of Canada’s oldest corporate archives. There, in a vault guarded by a steel door and shielded from public access, lies a collection spanning two centuries. The objects within weave a narrative that threads through North American history of an English bank that emerged half a century before Canada became a country.
Yolaine Toussaint, archivist for the Bank of Montreal, sits for a photograph in the basement vault of the bank’s head office. The Bank of Montreal helped grease the wheels of commerce beyond just the British colonies that later formed part of Canada by issuing its own banknotes that served as a source of currency exchange and aided trade and business among Montreal, New York, Chicago and even London.
“The archives are the soul of the bank,” said Yolaine Toussaint, chief archivist, who shares a basement office with a couple of staff. “You are what you are because of your past.”
Among the treasures are about 1,120 pieces of currency, 18,500 photos, 9,800 documents, more than 1,370 films, VHS tapes and recordings, and about 1,290 artefacts — from a time capsule and a security guard’s revolver to office equipment and promotional materials. In the vault, protected by temperatures of about 15.6 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) and 35% humidity, rests the most prized possession: the Articles of Association of the Montreal Bank.
This leather-bound tome marks the genesis of Canadian banking. Between its covers are 19 pages of handwritten rules — such as “capital stock shall not exceed 250,000 pounds” — each signed at the bottom by the nine founders in June 1817. Seven additional pages list the Bank of Montreal’s first shareholders.
“It’s like a baby, you have to be very careful,” Toussaint said as she gently turned the pages. “This is one of the key documents we felt had to be preserved.”
The Bank of Montreal’s historic milestone comes in a year when Canadians are marking the nation’s 150th birthday.
Stock ledgers from the 1800s sit on a shelf. On gaining nationhood in 1867 through a process known as Confederation, the nascent federal government made the Bank of Montreal its go-to banker. The institution helped finance the first telegraph line between Toronto and Montreal, as well as the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway that linked the country in 1886. Bank dealings are noted in ageing books and hefty loose-leaf ledgers. There are records from lenders acquired long ago — forgotten names such as the Bank of the People, the Bank of British North America and the Molsons Bank.
There are whimsical mechanical piggy banks dating back to the 1870s, a wax-melting pot to seal letters, and a 15-pound cheque signed on Aug 13, 1851, from George-Etienne Cartier, one of the fathers of Confederation. Then there are objects that show the bank’s reach beyond Montreal. This collection includes eight letters with orders from English writer Rudyard Kipling –still considered confidential information between the bank and its client.
A signature card signed by Henry Ford. There’s a signature card for Henry Ford and his wife Clara, dating back to 1922, from the bank’s Chicago branch, and a scale from the Klondike gold rush, retrieved from a branch in the Yukon’s Dawson City.
One of Toussaint’s favourite items is a June 4, 1868, handwritten letter from one of the Bank of Montreal’s original seven employees, an accountant named Henry Dupuy. Asked to recount his memories of the early days, Dupuy’s testimony spans 18 pages of sweeping penmanship and includes a tale of a perilous stagecoach journey in a February 1832 storm. The harness broke while transporting “a pretty large sum” of coins up a steep hill, forcing Dupuy and his driver to wade through snow nearly up to their hips to reunite coach and cargo.
“Those letters are the first evidence of the bank’s oral history, written history — this is a ‘wow piece’,” Toussaint said. “Even back then, when the bank was 50 years young, they were already thinking about recording their history.”
The 200-year-old Articles of Association is the most prized possession. Dupuy wouldn’t recognise his bank today. He toiled in the firm’s first building, erected in 1819 and now long gone, replaced by Bank of Montreal’s 17-story head office that houses the archives. History also lingers next door at the Montreal Main Branch, a neoclassical structure that opened in 1847 and is distinguished by a rooftop dome and a portico with six Corinthian columns.
A corridor linking the branch and head office houses a one-room museum open to the public, showcasing a replica of the bank’s original building interior with dark wood floorboards. There’s also a mannequin of the first teller — a Bostonian named Henry Stone — behind a brass cage, a symbol of the safety and security of banking of the time. There are tidbits from the archives: a reproduction of a painting of Dupuy’s snowy mishap, early money samples (including a $3 Bank of Montreal note from 1844), telegraph code books from 1907 and objects from takeovers such as the 1984 purchase of the Chicago-based Harris Bank.
“If you want to invest in your future, you have to understand the past,” Toussaint said. “We’re in a very good position to assist and help the new generation of bankers to understand and capitalise on its past and rich origins.”
Children’s bank saving booklets from late 1950’s.