April Fool’s Day was auspicious this year, falling as it did on a Saturday when downtown Toronto has little traffic. Even construction work in the financial district seemed muted heading into the weekend. By 10:45 am the pavement was still damp from the previous night’s rain, but the sky was lifting.
It turned out to be a good day for climate-change activists to rally. A hundred or so – seniors most of us — did exactly that, gathering in front of the Royal Bank of Canada’s headquarters on the southwest corner of Bay and Wellington streets. At issue was RBC’s role as a major financier of the fossil fuel industry. But everyone was talking about the relocation of RBC’s annual shareholders meeting which had been shifted from Toronto to Saskatoon. A move that was certainly strategic (avoiding the media) but nonetheless looked cowardly.
SCAN!’s message was straightforward. Fossil fuel companies have thoroughly researched climate warming and know exactly how significant the impact of the bank’s investment is. RBC knows it. And we know it.
We also know RBC participates in financing and backing the forestry industry, and did so throughout the 80s while mercury poisoning spread through Indigenous communities like Grassy Narrows in Northern Ontario. The issue highlights the role banks quietly play in facilitating projects that are actually harming Indigenous communities and intensifying the climate crisis.
The rally featured a host of musicians and speakers including Janice Jo Lee, Dani Michie, Eve Saint, Dinah Thorpe, Cassie Norton and Gary Wassuaykeecic. Each brought along their live talent and considered words. SCAN!’s Lyba Spring was there with her signature cowbell to mark the beat. The crowd was eager, the singing energetic, and passers-by slowed to listen and watch. Some joined in.
Thus, music and song merged into the message. A crowd of a hundred or so had arrived with signs and slogans. The sentiment was insistent. “The time is now, and we need to act.” Surrounded by glass towers, with police officers in the background, we transformed into a loud and insistent crowd. Chanting out call and response. “What do we want? — Land back!” “When do we want it? — Now!” Of course, we know there are no guaranteed outcomes. RBC makes that obvious. And the shared understanding that governments and banks need pressure — and a lot of it – keeps us going. More of us need to speak out.
The singers accompanied themselves on stringed and woodwind instruments, or sang solo. Gary Wassauykeecic stood holding a traditional drum in one hand, beating it with the other while speaking of economic genocide. “I hear the voice of my grandmother saying ‘Keep it in the ground,’” he told the crowd.
Later in the week came news of the April 5th shareholders meeting which apparently forced RBC to defend its climate plan. CEO Dave McKay responded to criticisms with comments about the need for an “orderly net-zero-transition”. He pointed to instability in energy and security which could impede efforts to curb climate change. Moreover, he noted “we are putting all the pressure in society on the manufacturing supply side to change and make it an easy journey for us as citizens. So far, for the most part, we’ve appeared unwilling to change our consumption behaviours to lower our footprint.” Essentially accusing Canadians of expecting business to change while not changing themselves.
Before the meeting began, however, the Wet’suwet’en chiefs, there in person to express their opposition to the bank’s involvement with Coastal GasLink pipeline, were relegated to an overflow room with piped in a/v. Prevented from appearing in person. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life,” commented chief Na’ Moks.
The tally of votes on key issues went thus : Resolutions for the bank to end fossil fuel expansion garnered 11% of the shareholder vote. Grand Chief Stewart Philip presented the resolution to support Indigenous consent that would commit RBC to implementing the practice of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. The concept is not new as FPIC is supported by UNDRIP, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. It would commit Canada to a protocol regarding Indigenous rights, and the use of Indigenous land and cultural materials. The motion supporting it garnered 28% of the shareholder vote. Of course, there is nothing preventing RBC from criticizing its critics. Indeed, it helps make its own position clear.
Susan Crean is a Toronto writer and a former chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada and a member of SCAN! Her website is at https://susancrean.ca
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