Science

Why environmentalists went after Canada's biggest bank for alleged greenwashing

Standing in the rain in downtown Montreal, Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson lifts her fist in defiance outside a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. She's one of six applicants who filed a complaint to Canada's Competition Bureau, accusing RBC of greenwashing.

RBC denies allegations and insists it is committed to net zero

Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson of the Skat’sin te Secwepemc-Neskonlith Indian Band raises her fist outside in downtown Montreal, standing in front of an RBC sign.
Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson of the Skat’sin te Secwepemc-Neskonlith Indian Band stands defiantly in front of an RBC branch in downtown Montreal. Wilson is part of a movement to hold banks accountable for funding the fossil fuel sector. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Standing in the rain in downtown Montreal, Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson lifts her fist in defiance outside a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Wilson's gesture goes largely unnoticed by the shoppers who hurry past, but her efforts to hold banks accountable on financing fossil fuels have certainly caught the attention of Canadian regulators.

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

She's also one of six applicants who filed a complaint to Canada's Competition Bureau, accusing RBC of greenwashing — something that prompted the regulator to open an inquiry into whether Canada's biggest bank misled customers about its climate action.

"It's time to be truthful," said Wilson, who spoke with CBC News while in Montreal for a meeting.

"[Climate change] is real, it's here and we have to deal with it."

Chief Judy Wilson stands in the rain outside in downtown Montreal, raising her fist in front of an RBC branch.
Wilson says there's no time to waste in cutting emissions as Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

The allegations, filed with the help of environmental law non-profit Ecojustice, suggest the bank has been marketing itself as being aligned with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, all while continuing to finance the fossil fuel industry. 

It's not the first time RBC has been called out over its support of 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 fifth globally among major banks financing the fossil fuel industry.

But in marketing materials, RBC states that it is "fully committed" to supporting drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

"The claims and RBC's actual action don't stack up," said Matt Hulse, the Ecojustice lawyer who helped draft and file the complaint to the Competition Bureau.

WATCH | RBC's climate blueprint ad:

RBC says complaint is unfounded

In response to the Competition Bureau's investigation, the bank denied it has been misleading clients. 

"RBC strongly disagrees with the allegations in the complaint, and believes the complaint to be unfounded and not in line with Canada's climate plan," RBC spokesperson Andrew Block said in an email. 

"It's critically important that we get the transition to net zero right in order to address 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 in order to succeed.

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

Time is a luxury that Wilson doesn't have, as her community is already experiencing the impacts of climate change.

"Many of our people still hunt and fish and harvest on the land … so they can firsthand see what climate change is doing. The rivers are low, warmer. The forests are tinder dry," she said. 

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

Sending a message to the industry

Holding companies accountable via the Competition Bureau has worked in the past. Earlier this year, Keurig Canada was ordered to pay a $3-million penalty for falsely claiming its single-use K-Cup pods can be recycled.

An inquiry could take more than a year, but environmental advocates hope that if they're successful, other banks will take note.

"RBC is a market leader. What they do, other banks — particularly in Canada — follow," Hulse said. "We thought that going after the biggest, if our complaint is upheld, would send a message across the industry."

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

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

Dror Etzion, a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, said the outcome of the investigation into RBC may just be that banks are more careful in their wording. (Submitted by Dror Etzion)

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

"It's very tough for consumers to shoulder and also it's a bit of guilt-tripping us as individuals to try to force corporations to change their behaviour."

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

"It wouldn't be good if the outcome is that the legal teams and these banks just become more careful in how they express themselves," Etzion said.

"What would be very good is if the policies and strategies underlying these banks' activities do change in a meaningful way."

Wilson, left, hugs her grandson, Quinn, in the Okanagan following a cleansing ceremony. Wilson said her children and grandchildren are the reason she's pushing for climate action. (Submitted by Judy Wilson)

Wilson hopes it's the latter, but regardless of the outcome said she will keep pushing for climate action. 

"There's going to be continued pressure like this, people aren't just going to give up," she said. 

Fighting for the next generation

Wilson, who will be attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt next month, said she's learned issues must be tackled holistically. 

Political, legal and technical — it was the three-pronged approach that 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 as important components to that formula. 

"What we're doing is important not just for the planetary crisis, it's for the well-being of our children and our grandchildren," she said.

"I'm going to do everything I can to keep my children and my grandson well, so that they can survive. Our ancestors did that for us, otherwise we wouldn't be here."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaela Bernstien

Journalist

Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and human rights for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at jaela.bernstien@cbc.ca

With files from Inayat Singh and Alice Hopton

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