The caisse populaire was established in 1900 as a co-operative savings and loan company with nonfixed capital and limited liability in Lévis, Québec, by Alphonse DESJARDINS, a journalist and French-language stenographer in the House of Commons. Desjardins used European savings and loan co-operatives as models for his enterprise. He encouraged the working classes to save and plan for the future and provided the credit they needed for economic recovery. Desjardins also hoped the caisse would contribute to the economic emancipation of French Canadians. The Caisse populaire de Lévis opened on 23 January 1901 in Desjardins's own home; 12 people paid a total of $26.40 as first payment of their share in the partnership. The first savings deposit, made on February 7, was for only 5 cents.
By 1906, savings amounted to nearly $40 000; in the same year, after vigorous lobbying by Desjardins and his friends, the Québec legislature adopted the Act on co-operative syndicates (see also CREDIT UNIONS). In 1920, when Desjardins died, 219 caisses populaires had been established, including 23 in Ontario and 9 in French-Canadian communities in New England, largely as a result of the clergy's unfailing support of and eager participation in this undertaking.
Through the years caisses populaires have created or acquired many financial subsidiaries operating in the insurance, trust, and industrial and commercial investment sectors, as well as the funds management, securities brokerage and banking services sectors. With some 40 000 employees, what is now known as the Mouvement Desjardins is currently the largest private employer in Québec.