‘How dare you dismiss this?’ Indigenous, climate leaders shut out of RBC meeting room

John Woodside
Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs Gisdaya and Na'Moks and other representatives from the nation attend RBC's annual shareholder meeting in Saskatoon on April 5, 2023. Photo by Katie Wilson

Apr. 6, 2023

Indigenous leaders and climate advocates say they were met with the “highest insult” Wednesday as security guards turned them away from the main room of RBC's annual shareholder meeting in Saskatoon.

The attendees sought to challenge RBC’s leaders in person on the bank’s fossil fuel funding and human rights policies, but were physically prevented from entering the main meeting room. Instead, leaders like Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks, environmental justice advocate Roishetta Ozane and others were taken to a secondary room to watch a livestream and ask questions remotely.

“They sensed us coming here to Saskatoon and segregated us, put us into another room,” Chief Na’Moks said during the meeting, calling it “a racist act.”

He sought to press RBC leaders on the bank's financing of Coastal GasLink, a pipeline project crossing Wet'suwet'en territory that is opposed by the nation's hereditary chiefs. But when he tried to enter the main room, “they actually laid hands on me, a Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief, on my regalia,” he said.

It follows a similar experience last year, when the in-person part of RBC’s annual meeting was abruptly cancelled. Chief Na’Moks and fellow chiefs had flown to Toronto to attend.

“How dare you dismiss this, dismiss me?” he said, addressing the bank’s CEO: “You have offended a high chief, Mr. (David) McKay. I hold you personally responsible for this.”

Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Na'Moks speaks at a press conference in Saskatoon on April 5, 2023. Other speakers (L-R): Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Vessel Project executive director Roishetta Ozane, Vanessa Gray of Indigenous Climate Action and Gitxsan Nation leader Kolin Sutherland-Wilson. Photo by Katie Wilson

Louisiana-based climate advocate Roishetta Ozane, who founded grassroots mutual aid and disaster relief group the Vessel Project, flew to Saskatoon for the meeting and described in blunt terms what she saw as racism on full display.

“They're afraid of elders, they're afraid of moms, they're cowards,” she said.

“This is some 19th-century, Jim Crow law, segregation-type stuff… This is some back-of-the-bus, you-don't-belong-here, get-on-your-side-of-the-street, drink-from-the-Black-only-water-fountain type of stuff. Like, what even is this?”

“They sensed us coming here to Saskatoon and segregated us, put us into another room,” Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks said at the RBC annual meeting Wednesday. - Twitter

Indigenous and climate leaders attending RBC's 2023 annual shareholder meeting were directed to a second overflow room instead of the main meeting. Photo by Climate Justice Saskatoon

She described one room “full of white, wealthier people who did not look like us” and the room she was taken to, along with Indigenous leaders and allies, and asked: “What else do you call it?”

RBC told Canada’s National Observer the bank treats every attendee fairly and with respect, adding the second room was set up because of strong interest in attending the meeting.

“Some attendees were required to participate in our meeting from the second room, and we appreciate this was disappointing to them,” said RBC spokesperson Andrew Block.

“Recognizing the main meeting room may fill with attendees, we ensured a second room was available, if needed, to fully support all attendees’ ability to participate in the meeting and to be heard if they wish to address the meeting.

“We ensured all attendees who came to speak to a shareholder proposal had the option to sit in the main room regardless of what time they arrived.”

Several speakers who were not permitted in the main room had flown to Saskatoon to speak about the various shareholder proposals.

‘Not fair to hold us accountable’

The purpose of the bank’s annual general meeting is for RBC shareholders to vote on resolutions, appoint directors to its board, present financial information and answer questions about the direction the bank is headed. On Wednesday, the bank faced eight non-binding shareholder proposals related to Indigenous rights, climate change, pay transparency and racial equity. Each resolution was shot down, but several proposals similar to those filed last year enjoyed more support this year, indicating the bank will continue to face mounting pressure to respond to climate change and Indigenous rights.

Among the rejected resolutions were calls to respect the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples by revising the bank's human rights policies; prevent financing of fossil fuel expansion; and set 2030 targets for reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions for oil, gas and utility clients.

McKay told shareholders “there’s no disagreement” about the need to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but “where I think we disagree is how we get there.” He said he was in favour of “practical” and “smart” ways to get to net-zero “with a high probability of success.”

However, RBC’s current policies do not align the bank with credible pathways to net zero. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have both repeatedly warned that fossil fuel production must be rapidly phased out to avoid crossing dangerous global warming thresholds that would lock in irreversible ecological damage. And yet, since the Paris climate agreement was signed, RBC has provided over $270 billion to fossil fuel companies, with last year representing a 45 per cent increase in fossil fuel funding from the year before.

“We are not calling for divestment to happen overnight,” said Stand.earth climate finance director Richard Brooks, who attended the meeting. “Rather we are urging the bank to conduct an orderly reduction in overall financing of companies actively expanding fossil fuel production and transportation.”

Before taking questions on the Coastal GasLink pipeline — the project opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership — McKay said he expected questions would come, so he’d “just address it now.”

“We are responsible for understanding the risk of the project. I get that as a financier, but we do not operate the project and it's not fair to hold us accountable for anything that happens day to day in that project, and I encourage you to look to the owners or to the government for those answers,” he said.

Last week, RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en territory and arrested five people, claiming to be in search of a stolen chainsaw. The nation has been subjected to several raids in recent years relating to the pipeline’s construction and the Wet’suwet’en effort to stop it. Both Wet’suwet’en traditional law and the Supreme Court of Canada agree the nation never surrendered its territory, and title to the land belongs with the nation’s hereditary chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink.

Hereditary Chief Woos was not in attendance, but two of his daughters were and asked questions to bank leadership. Eve Saint described “militarized” raids in 2019, 2020 and 2021, calling them the “highest colonial violence” Indigenous Peoples face. She asked if the bank would stop investing in Indigenous violence.

McKay did not answer, instead saying he would not “entertain” any further questions about the pipeline.

“We've covered fossil fuels, we've covered free, prior and informed consent, we've covered Coastal GasLink, so we'll not entertain any more questions on those topics,” he said.

The next speaker, Jocelyn Alec, is also one of Woos’ daughters and was arrested last week during the raid. Alec began to ask a question but was interrupted by an RBC official. She tried to press on, saying, “Don’t interrupt me,” but the microphone appeared to be cut off.

“I am going to interrupt you because we did ask for the business of the meeting to be focused on RBC,” the official said.


'Whether you want me here or not'

Speaking from the second room, Ozane said she cared about environmental justice because of the long history of environmental racism.

“Environmental racism is decades of unfair and unjust exposure of environmental hazard, waste, resource extraction and land use in and around low-income, Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour communities,” she said. “As a Black woman, I am passionate about environmental racism and environmental justice because I recognize the health disparities that disproportionately affect communities of colour.”

She described RBC’s financing of fossil fuel infrastructure on the Gulf Coast, where she lives, and linked it to health issues her children experience.

“I'm a mom of six. Three of my children have asthma, two of them eczema,” she said. “We live in a community that is surrounded by 12 petrol chemical facilities, and several more are proposed.”

Ozane said she didn’t have a question for bank leadership because she didn’t think they’d even answer honestly. “I'm sure, like every other question that's been asked, you will pretend to be a politician and ignore the question and answer it with your prepared remarks,” she said.

“I'm not here for that today. I'm simply here to have my voice heard and to show my children that I am doing everything that I can to stand up for them and make sure that they have the right to clean air and clean water, whether you want to hear me or not,” she said, her voice cracking.


Avoiding greenwashing

Beyond climate and Indigenous rights concerns, RBC’s fossil fuel financing represents serious business risks, too, Brooks says.

Brooks noted the New York City comptroller, who manages US$242 billion worth of pension funds, filed a resolution with RBC urging it to set 2030 absolute emission reduction targets. The resolution “speaks volumes to how RBC is seen on the global stage,” he said.

He also pointed to BMO, Citibank and Vancity, all of which have set absolute emission reduction targets for 2030. “These present a competitive risk if RBC does not step up,” he said.

To date, RBC has only set emission “intensity” targets that do not actually guarantee greenhouse gas emissions from its clients would fall. Last year, the UN’s High-Level Expert Group, chaired by former environment minister Catherine McKenna, established a set of criteria to separate credible net-zero claims from greenwashing. It made clear that only absolute emissions should be seen as credible, and that firms supporting fossil fuel expansion are unaligned with the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit global warming.

Competition Bureau Canada has recently taken note of RBC’s net-zero claims and opened an investigation into alleged greenwashing. Brooks said the bank could avoid risks like this if it set absolute emissions reduction goals.

Updates and corrections

 | Corrections policy
April 6, 2023, 09:30 am

Updated to clarify who was brought to a second meeting room.

[Top photo: Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs Gisdaya and Na'Moks and other representatives from the nation attend RBC's annual shareholder meeting in Saskatoon on April 5, 2023. Photo by Katie Wilson]