Getting to Maybe with RBC

By Brant Ran

After a year of campaigning, this afternoon RBC and RAN finally sat opposite the same table to talk tar sands (here’s the background for those just tuning in).

In RBC’s corner was COO Barbara Stymiest joined by Sandra Odendahl and Shari Austin. We correspond with Sandra and Shari pretty regularly.  Barbara was a new contact. She’s one of nine members of RBC’s “Group Executive” responsible for setting the overall strategic direction of the bank.

Weighing in for RAN was Acting Executive Director Rebecca Tarbotton joined by Eriel Deranger and me. Our aim was to learn whether RBC is ready to begin putting its money where its mouth is on Indigenous rights, water quality and climate change by scaling back its financing in Canada’s tar sands.

The resounding conclusion? Maybe a little. Maybe. Enough to scale back the campaign? Read the play-by-play after the jump.

Indigenous rights took much of the agenda . After a December letter from CEO Gord Nixon cited “little room for agreement” on Free, Prior Informed Consent, we were pleased to see the bank reconsidering its position. We heard about a recent trip by Stymiest and Odendahl to visit with three First Nations in the tar sands region.  We heard about the bank’s keen interest in promoting dialogue between industry and First Nations and government. And while the bank appeared ready to strengthen its lending standards on Indigenous rights, recognizing “Consent” continues to be a deal-breaker for RBC.  Progress? Maybe a little, but not the standard already recognized by Toronto Dominion Bank–not to mention 143 countries (Canada, the US and New Zealand  excepted) signed onto the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Next on the agenda was environmental lending standards in the tar sands. On the table was draft language for a new Environmental Risk Policy. The document would replace RBC’s “outdated” policy that guides bank decisions on lending to companies operating in high-impact industries like the tar sands. The proprietary policy would be subject to internal audits and would prohibit lending to clients operating in ways “which adversely impact, in a non-reversible manner, critical natural habitats or freshwater resources.”

Good language.  In fact, it’s the same language that we proposed to the bank one year ago now on the books at French bank Dexia. Asked whether the policy would change RBC’s business in the sector, Stymiest said that we “should see change over time as new credits are vetted according to the policy.” Progress? Maybe. The proposal still needs to be vetted internally with lenders, risk managers and external advisors. We’re looking forward to the details.

With virtually no time to spare, we took up climate change. The RBC team characterized measuring the “financed emissions” embedded in the bank’s lending portfolio as impractical, but assured us that the bank is committed to promoting renewable energy. Nice, but not on par with Unicredit Bank’s commitment to do just that.

So are these commitments enough to cool the campaign? Should the 150+  people planning to descend on RBC’s shareholder meeting next month bring champagne instead of chants.

We want to hear from you in the comments.