A Hostile Climate

A radical activist group targets RBC. This time it’s personal.

A Hostile ClimateGord Nixon, 52 years old and chief executive officer of Canada’s largest bank, drove home from his downtown Toronto office one day in late July as per usual, to his mid-town manse on a neatly tree-lined street. By the time he got home he was apoplectic. The entire route, all the way to his front door, was postered with messages on light poles reading “Help us Mrs. Nixon,” aimed at his wife, Janet. That was in addition to similar notices plastered in the downtown core in the previous weeks. The posters didn’t say who “us” were, but Nixon knew what it was about.

It was the most provocative step to date in a campaign against the Royal Bank of Canada launched by a U.S.-based environmental activist group few in Canada had heard of—the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). The group’s purpose: to stop lending in Canada’s oil sands. Not cut lending, stop lending altogether.

RBC is, to be sure, a formidable target—it’s a bank with over $720 billion in assets. But RAN is also a force to be reckoned with. In the past 15 years, it has managed to get U.S. corporations like Citigroup, Home Depot and Boise Cascade to make concessions on environmental issues. It’s a slick organization posing as a grassroots and granola outfit; it counts a number of Hollywood celebrities among its supporters, and the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund among its donors. But it’s also a radical group that believes in creating a “business nightmare” for its corporate targets, according to its own literature. Its letterhead logo is a black panther, evoking extreme activism of the past, and it trains its members in civil disobedience. Its leaders speak like M.B.A. grads—Mike Brune, its executive director, has an accounting degree from Westchester University, but he has also been arrested at least 11 times.

RAN has drawn fire for its tactics in the past. Its campaign against Boise earned it the enmity of the chair of the powerful U.S. House ways and means committee, who in the mid-2000s authorized an investigation into whether it violated its tax-exempt status. And the few Canadian environmentalists who know RAN wonder about some of its methods. “RAN to a degree is importing a U.S.-style of campaigning into Canada and that presents challenges that are risky on both sides,” says Alan Young, director of corporate programs for Canadian Boreal Initiative.

RAN is masterminding its campaign against RBC from its San Francisco headquarters, using Facebook groups to garner members and to organize “action days” outside bank branches. (Support in Canada for RAN isn’t confined to eco-activists, however. Former cabinet minister Eugene Whelan was moved to write a letter to a journalist earlier this year after he became aware of RAN, saying RBC’s oil sands involvement “is a real contradiction with their other commitments to the Olympics and the Blue Water program.”)

The guiding principle behind RAN’s Global Finance Campaign, first launched back in 2000, is to follow the money. When it targeted Citigroup, it ran ads showing celebrities cutting up their Citibank credit cards and had 2,500 pictures and letters sent by children to former chairman Sandy Weill asking him to stop financing global warming and forest destruction. Then it got personal. RAN papered Weill’s hometown of Greenwich, Conn., with “Wanted” posters with his picture, and when he travelled to Europe on a family vacation, RAN even took out ads in the International Herald Tribune featuring his photo and the line: “Put a face on global warming and forest destruction.”

After a year of this torture, Citigroup made some concessions, including the adoption of an environmental policy that prohibited funding and corporate loans in “high caution” ecological zones. Then, in a spread-the-misery move, Citigroup worked on RAN’s behalf to bring its competitors on board. As far as RAN was concerned, it was a good start. “We need most of the major world banks to deny funding for a whole class of projects,” said Brune.

RAN ventured up to Canada in 2005 and surveyed the banking landscape. Its list of targets quickly came down to the Toronto Dominion Bank and RBC. TD Bank pursued a different course from RBC, engaging with senior RAN representatives and signing some environmental accords. In June 2007, TD Bank announced a new environmental policy that pledged to “manage and minimize the impact of environmental risks and issues from its business operations.” It seemed lifted largely out of the RAN playbook.

Perhaps TD Bank’s fast footwork allowed it to escape RAN’s crosshairs. But more likely RBC was selected for the full Citigroup treatment simply because it’s the biggest of the country’s banks. RAN’s campaign literature claims the bank is a leading financer of the oil sands, at US$7.9 billion since 2007. RBC disputes that and puts the number at less than US$2 billion. RAN’s methodology in comparing the banks’ oil sands investments “was so broken and distorted that another NGO commented privately to us that they couldn’t believe RAN published it,” says bank spokeswoman Katherine Gay.

RAN’s campaign against RBC started small—an operative from San Francisco attended the bank’s annual meeting last February in Vancouver and caused a scene briefly by laying out the group’s demands. That was followed up by some picketing in front of bank branches. Then last June, Brune sent Nixon a two-page letter with formal demands: to require RBC clients to get “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations on all corporate projects and activities affecting them; to phase out financing and advice to oil sands projects with adverse environmental impacts; and to reduce “financed emissions”—essentially asking the bank to be responsible for the emissions of its clients.

Last summer, RAN zeroed in on Nixon’s wife, Janet, with the poster offensive and an Internet campaign, using the conceit that Mrs. Nixon was a passionate environmentalist (more like a moderate environmentalist, sources close to her say) who could influence bank policy. The net effect of involving his wife, according to those who know, was to produce a furious CEO, who told friends the action was un-Canadian and wouldn’t work here. Nixon wouldn’t speak on the record about this tactic but his spokeswoman said, “We view these campaigns as emotional extortion, inflammatory and ultimately not useful to either party.”

Publicly, the bank did not respond to RAN, as part of a strategy of non-engagement. Similarly, when earlier this fall RAN sent two of its First Nations members up flagpoles at Royal Bank Plaza to protest oil sands financing, RBC stayed mute. But the organization kept at Nixon. In September, two RAN protesters ambushed the CEO at a financial industry summit, asking leading questions. (One: “What rate of cancer is needed in communities in Alberta before RBC realizes that financing tar sands is a bad idea?”)

But behind the scenes, the bank has been waging its own intelligence and opinion battle. Various sources say Nixon made it clear he wanted this fixed by staff in charge of environmental affairs. The bank began disputing RAN’s calculations of its involvement in the oil sands as “unconventional math,” calling the group “imported activists,” listing the environmental accolades RBC has collected and arguing for a “balanced approach” because banks can’t be ultimately responsible for the environmental actions of their clients, and shouldn’t be policy-makers.

Early in December, RAN fired another shot over the bow with a letter sent to all Canadian banks, this time including foreign-owned
subsidiaries, restating its demands. The letter also warned that in January it will publish a briefing summarizing oil sands financing. It promised to also show who’s been good and who’s been bad—“we urge you to distinguish yourself.”

For now at least, RAN seems to have convinced RBC to move off its non-engagement strategy. In December, Nixon sent a letter to Brune promising that senior bank executives would meet with him in San Francisco in early February “to determine what, if any common ground we have”—if the group agreed not to ramp up its campaign in the next six weeks or so. That time period coincides with the Vancouver Olympics, of which the bank is a sponsor, and the bank’s annual meeting.

Nixon criticized the group for using “extremely personal and objectionable tactics” and said the bank would not move on demands to get prior consent from First Nations groups as a precondition to oil sands financing. But he did offer to discuss a draft corporate lending/environmental risk policy that he said was already in the internal discussion phase. RBC says the response came after RAN made friendly overtures in its own letter. Even so, holding out the prospect of meeting personally with RAN, Nixon offered Brune this: “With respect to phasing out oil sands and advisory projects with irreversible environmental impacts, we may indeed be able to have a productive discussion.”

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