Ex-Scotia banker says early days not all rosy
PETER ROSS WAS the first teller hired by Scotiabank when the Canadian bank set up operations in Barbados in 1956.
Looking back on his life, he regards his foundation in banking the template.
Long retired, the 79-year-old has many stories to tell. He has in fact chronicled some of his experiences from banker to qualified accountant in books. But it is the stories about the 19-year-old former Harrisonian who joined six others to open the Canadian bank’s first branch in Barbados that resonate with the listener.
Some of the incidents he relates readily evoke laughter and he himself laughs a lot, except when he remarked to the SUNDAY SUN: “I have suffered.” That downside he associates more with his own experience of early struggle in a society where for some people the popular “white is right” theory applied.
“We are all Barbadians – poor Barbadians,” was the way he described his family background.
“I was born in Barbarees Hill. My grandparents lived in Pie Corner which was as poor as you could get. So I know adversity. Adversity is a good thing to go through. It really models you for your future.”
Ross’ parents migrated to Montreal in the 50s, taking their children with them. His Canadian education proved to be his passport to a job with Scotiabank, when his father returned to Barbados to rejoin his old employer the Barbados Foundry.
It was the 1950s, bank tellers operated in enclosed cages and clients were given a secret password to be used in their banking transactions.
Ross could not hold back the laughter when he remembered a special client he assisted in his first days. “This elderly lady came in and said, ‘I understand this is a bank. I could put money here?’ Of course she could. New accounts were absolutely necessary in this building phase.
She was carrying “this big stocking with a lot of money” and when asked to sign a specimen card to open the account, she admitted, ‘I can’t write’. Neither did she know what was a nom de plume when one was suggested instead of the “X” commonly used by people in her situation. She was therefore assigned the name “Breadfruit” by a Scotiabank manager who had not long before arrived in Barbados.
Breadfruit was completely gone from her head when she returned to do business a second time. She was coached to remember it next time.
“Did she retain the password? ‘Sure’, she said on her third visit: ‘I told everybody in the village if you want to get money from the new bank all you got to do is say Breadfruit’.”
Scotiabank was the eighth bank opening in Bridgetown and competition was expected to be stiff. Ross recalls former Mayor of Bridgetown Ernest Deighton Mottley dropping in one day, surveying the scene and on leaving, remarking “this bank will not last long. There are too many banks already”.
But Scotiabank has lasted 60 years, many decades longer than Ross continued to be a member of its staff. The circumstances surrounding his departure for greener pastures are instructive about the Barbados of yesterday.
The published newspaper announcement of his engagement to Maureen Bryan would force Ross into another phase of his life.
“The manager called me a morning and said, ‘Congratulations are in order but I must tell you when you are working for the bank you have to be working for a certain salary to get married and you are nowhere near that salary’.”
His bubble burst when he heard his salary would not be increased. “I was not giving up my girlfriend at the time – now my wife – so I resigned from there and I decided I would study accountancy.”
He took a job as assistant accountant at the Barbados Cotton Factory and proceeded to study for a professional designation.
He later moved on to Pine Hill Dairy as corporate secretary and financial controller.
It was in the setting up of his own accounting business PM Ross and Company that he saw the true face of what could easily be described as reverse racism.
He explained: “As a cost and industrial accountant I decided to specialise in manufacturing because manufacturing was the big thing in Barbados at the time. A well-known business person phoned and asked me to come up. When I went he told me, ‘Don’t bother I did not know you were white’.”
Next there was the potential Indian client who told him, “I will hire you if you are going to work for half of what I pay my accountant now’.”
Looking back, he said: “I built up my business on the basis of not going purely for the big ones or not even the medium ones, but starting with the small ones.”
But he shows no bitterness at any of those experiences, just as he did not allow them to get in the way of building sincere, enduring friendships with people of all races. Now age 78, he acknowledges: “My best friends are coloured friends.”
The card players who regularly sit around the card table at the Rosses’ home span the racial divide, and Ross is at pains to point out “White people are not bad people . . . there are so many other white people in Barbados, who all they want is to be good Barbadians.”
The avid coin collector, who once boasted a large stamp collection, observes the post-independence Barbados is “far different” from the Barbados he knew in the 1950s.
For one, complexions in the banks have changed. “I would say the Bank of Nova Scotia was instrumental in changing the colour of the staff,” he observed.
“Banking in those days was very much like Harrison’s and Da Costa’s and Fogarty’s. You saw a lot of old white people. But then you started to get blacks coming in to the bank (to work).” He is happy to have been part of that change. “It had to become that. It could not continue as it was,” Ross said.
He, however, made the point “most of the white people in Barbados now did not descend from the plantocracy and so on” and referring to his own situation said, “I came along a very poor person and lots of people like myself, we have suffered. Poor white people in Barbados have suffered.”
The long-standing member of the Free Mason fraternity says he brought the same concept of removing racial barriers to membership to Free Masonry, amidst objection from some of his fellow white fraternity members.
“I am a very active Free Mason and I made sure that the lodges were representative of what we see in Barbados. I got criticised for it but I don’t mind,” he said.
Were the critics white people? “Yes” was his frank reply. He plans to share his thoughts on the issue in a book on Free Masonry he is currently writing with the title Forgive But Never Forget. (GC)