Five activists with the Rainforest Action Network attended the Investing in Water conference at University of Toronto to confront RBC’s Director of Corporate Environmental Affairs, Sandra Odendahl, on RBC’s financing of tar sands developments in Alberta.
During her presentation, Ms. Odendahl highlighted RBC’s Blue Water project, a program that she argues “foster[s] a culture of water stewardship, so that people have clean fresh water today and tomorrow.” Rainforest Action Network activists shared their concern that RBC, the top financier of fossil fuel production and tar sands development in Canada, still claims a supposed commitment to clean water.
The activists who infiltrated the conference took over Ms. Odendahl’s entire Q and A period with several poignant questions and a banner dropping, catching the moderator, crowd, and Ms. Odendahl off-guard. Two passionate activists stood facing Sandra Odendahl and held a banner stating ‘OIL SANDS AND BLUE WATER DON’T MIX’. They asked, “If oil and water don't mix, why is RBC financing the tar sands?” The room was stunned as the two continued, “Blue Water lending is a drop of water compared to billions in tar sands financing that creates dirty tailings ponds and massive deforestation. Tailings ponds are the wrong ponds to be investing in. Impacted First Nations communities demand that RBC suspend all financing of tar sands expansion and respect their aboriginal treaty rights. How can you justify using three barrels of Canada's fresh water for one barrel of dirty oil? Is this what RBC considers sustainable, low risk financing?”
Moderators and event organizers tried to escort the two out of the room, stating that it was a question and answer period and not a time for their own “personal agenda.” One of the activists calmly replied, “We did ask a question—Is this sustainable financing?”
The first two questions following Ms. Odendahl’s speech, however, helped to set the stage before the activists called attention their so-called personal agenda. The first questioner requested practical examples of RBC’s Environmental Risk Management methodology, asking, for example, what financial risk value RBC had assigned to the three litigations currently being filed against industry and provincial and federal governments by First Nations communities in Alberta due to violations arising from tar sands projects. The questioner also asked Ms. Odendhal to explain how RBC can view financing projects that are engendering lawsuits due to environmental damage and violations of treaty rights to be a good example of sustainable investment and sound risk management? Ms. Odendahl proceeded to attempt an answer, citing the fact that banks cannot be held responsible for the actions of those to whom they lend money and then diverted responsibility onto governments to set standards and force corporations to comply.
While the room started to bustle the moderator nervously suggested that the conference Q and A session move on. Another Rainforest Action Network activist then made reference to the question Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the Lubicon-Cree First Nation had previously posed at RBC’s shareholder meeting: “If RBC is serious about supporting clean water, why are they financing projects that are contaminating lakes and rivers in my community?”
As Ms. Odendahl struggled to address these questions, the banner was unfurled. The question period was effectively derailed and ended after the activists were able to personally deliver their message to RBC’s Director of Corporate Environmental Affairs.
At the end of the conference, flyers were distributed to participants as they left the building. A number of conference participants (8-10) went out of their way to express support for the RAN activists’ position. A sample of comments include encouragement to ‘keep up the good work,’ ‘good job,’ and that RAN’s actions at this conference had made them question what the RBC representative had been saying.
RBC now has the opportunity to take a leadership role on this issue and on issues of the environment relating to the Tar Sands and corporate social responsibility. Let’s hope that they rise to the challenge that First Nations communities and their allies have set forth.
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As a post-action follow up, one activist remained behind to address Ms. Odendahl one-on-one after the meeting. The discussion started out combative, as Ms. Odendahl claimed that RBC’s financing of oil companies was small in “the grand scheme of things” and that banks have no authority over their lenders. Simply, she stated that RBC would never stop financing the tar sands because “it would make no difference.” When confronted about Gordon Nixon’s wavering pledge to visit Fort Chipewyan she said, “The oil companies are doing a better job of communicating than the Government,” and that Nixon visited a year ago and wasn’t sure what another visit would accomplish. When pressed, however, she admitted that the visit was not community oriented. She also stated that the people of Alberta and of these communities aren’t complaining.
Perhaps she considers litigations, protests, rallies, and general dissent among community members, Indigenous peoples, and other members of the Canadian public compliments?
Rainforest Action Network uses people power to challenge business as usual.
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