Why environmentalists sued Canada’s largest bank over alleged greenwashing

Standing in the rain in downtown Montreal, Kukpi7 (Chef) Judy Wilson raises her fist in defiance outside a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Wilson’s move goes largely unnoticed by rushing buyers, but his efforts to hold banks accountable for fossil fuel financing have certainly caught the attention of Canadian regulators.

Wilson, based in south-central British Columbia, is chief of the Skat’sin te Secwepemc-Neskonlith Indian Band and secretary-treasurer of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).

She is also one of six claimants to file a complaint with Canada’s Competition Bureau accusing RBC of greenwashing, prompting the regulator to launch an investigation into whether the largest bank in the Canada had misled its customers about its climate action.

« It’s time to come clean, » said Wilson, who spoke to CBC News during a meeting in Montreal.

« [Climate change] is real, it’s there and we have to deal with it. »

Wilson says there is no time to waste on reducing emissions because Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

The allegations, filed with the help of Ecojustice, an environmental law nonprofit, suggest the bank was to market as being aligned with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, while continuing to fund the fossil fuel industry.

This is not the first time that RBC has been called out for its support for the oil and gas sector.

A separate report published this year by a group of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Indigenous Environmental Network, ranked RBC as the world’s fifth largest bank financing the fossil fuel industry.

But in Promotional materialRBC says it is « fully committed » to supporting the drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

« RBC’s claims and actual action do not match, » said Matt Hulse, the Ecojustice attorney who helped draft and file the complaint with the Competition Bureau.

WATCH | RBC’s Climate Blueprint announcement:

RBC says the complaint is unfounded

In response to the Competition Bureau’s investigation, the bank denied misleading customers.

« RBC strongly disagrees with the allegations contained in the complaint and believes that the complaint is unfounded and inconsistent with Canada’s climate plan, » the RBC spokesperson said. Andrew Block, in an email.

“It is critically important that we achieve the transition to net zero in order to tackle climate change and we have taken a measured, thoughtful and deliberate approach in our climate strategy.”

In the past, RBC has said its transition to net zero must be gradual to be successful.

A Royal Bank of Canada logo is seen on Bay Street in the heart of Toronto’s financial district January 22, 2015. The bank has been accused of misrepresenting its climate actions. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Time is a luxury Wilson doesn’t have, as his community is already experiencing the impacts of climate change.

“Many of our people still hunt, fish and gather on land…so they can see firsthand what climate change is doing. Rivers are lower, warmer. Forests are drier,” she said. declared.

« With fossil fuels destroying the climate and climate change disproportionately impacting Indigenous peoples around the world, as well as in Canada, we need to make the right decision. »

Send a message to the industry

Holding companies accountable through the Competition Bureau has worked in the past. Earlier this year, Keurig Canada was fined $3 million for falsely claiming that its single-serve K-Cup pods can be recycled.

An investigation could take more than a year, but conservationists hope that if they are successful, other banks will take notice.

« RBC is a market leader. What it is doing, other banks, especially in Canada, are following, » Hulse said. « We thought that prosecuting the bigger one, if our complaint was upheld, would send a message to the whole industry. »

Dror Etzion, a professor specializing in sustainability at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, said it has become popular for banks to project an image of sustainable finance.

« The key is really, how serious and honest is self-reporting on these topics? » said Etzion.

Dror Etzion, a professor at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, said the result of the RBC survey could simply be that banks are more cautious in their wording. (Submitted by Dror Etzion)

He said regulators can play an important role in holding companies accountable for climate promises, rather than leaving it up to individuals.

« It’s very difficult for consumers to take on board and it’s also a little guilt-ridden for us as individuals to try to force companies to change their behavior. »

While the bureau’s findings could create ripple effects within the financial industry as a whole, Etzion said they may not lead to the kind of outcome that environmentalists are hoping for.

« It wouldn’t be good if the result was that the legal teams and these banks just become more careful in how they speak, » Etzion said.

« What would be great is if the policies and strategies that underpin the business of these banks change significantly. »

Wilson, left, kisses his grandson, Quinn, in the Okanagan after a smudging ceremony. Wilson said her children and grandchildren are the reason she is pushing for climate action. (Submitted by Judy Wilson)

Wilson hopes it’s the latter, but regardless of the outcome, she will continue to push for climate action.

« There’s going to be continued pressure like this, people aren’t just going to give up, » she said.

Fight for the next generation

Wilson, who will attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt next month, said she learned that the issues needed to be addressed holistically.

Political, legal and technical – this is the three-pronged approach she learned from her late uncle George Manuel, an internationally renowned indigenous activist and founder of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Wilson said she now adds spiritual and international elements to this formula.

« What we are doing is important not only for the planetary crisis, but also for the well-being of our children and our grandchildren, » she said.

« I will do everything to make sure my children and my grandson are well, so that they can survive. Our ancestors did this for us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. »


Back to top button