In case people forgot that shareholder activism works here’s a quick refresher. Actvists in Winnipeg, Manitoba attended Scotia Bank’s annual shareholder meeting last week and had an amazing response to their questions around corporate-social responsibility. Here are Beau and Shelagh’s report from Winnipeg:
Scotiabank held their Annual General Meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba on March 3. My friend Beau and I attended the meeting armed with leaflets…The meeting took place in a fancy Winnipeg hotel, and there were cops everywhere. We decided to hold on to our leaflets until we got a chance to ask our questions. There were several hundred shareholders at the meeting, most of them white men. As we sat through speeches that praised capitalism and Scotiabank’s growth, we noticed that one of the men on the stage was Rick Waugh, President of Scotiabank, whose name appeared on our leaflets as the person to contact regarding the bank’s policies.
Just before the question and answer period, a short film about Scotiabank’s corporate social responsibility was shown. It outlined some of the projects that Scotiabank was engaged in, such as using recycled paper, raising money for various charities, and running leadership workshops for women. After the film came question period.
I stood up and told the executives that their social responsibility programs and their efforts to address the environmental impact of their operations were positive steps, but that they continued to finance companies such as Weyerhaeuser, a corporation that is destructively logging in the First Nation of Grassy Narrows. I asked them when they would follow the lead of top U.S. banks like JP. Morgan Chase and Goldman and Sachs and adopt policies on climate change, biodiversity and indigenous rights. Rick Waugh gave a vague answer, saying that the environment was important, but there was also a need for balance.
There was a huge response to my question and remarks from the shareholders, both positive and negative. One shareholder stood up and told Mr. Waugh that corporate social responsibility was a waste of his money, to which Mr.
Waugh replied that there had to be a balance and that many stakeholders were pushing for social responsibility. Another shareholder stood up and expressed the importance of preserving the environment for future generations.
As people left the meeting, Beau and I handed out our leaflets to the shareholders, and several people approached me to tell me that they supported my question and position.
Beau and I also had a chance to speak to Rick Waugh in person. We thanked him for his efforts to date, but told him that Scotiabank lagged far behind U.S. banks, and handed him some leaflets.
Another person who we had a chance to meet was a retired executive from Weyerhaeuser. He came up to me and told me that I had made misleading statements about Weyerhaeuser, and that the company was not doing anything illegal. We had a discussion about logging and the blockade in Grassy Narrows, and it turned out that he had never heard about the blockade and had no sense of the eco-system destruction that clear-cutting causes.
We mingled with people in the extravagant reception (free food, wine and champagne, a live pianist, and an ice sculpture of the Scotiabank logo) and had several more interesting exchanges with people who had been in the meeting.
We were eventually asked to leave by a Scotiabank usher backed up by a cop, who informed us that our leaflets were “upsetting shareholders”.
I have to wonder, exactly why were the leaflets upsetting shareholders? Was it because it brought the truth of Scotia Bank’s horrible investments in companies like Weyerhaeuser to light? I think so. Often, when faced with an uncomfortable truth our first reaction as human beings is to do anything to remove the “claim” that what we might be doing (or invested in) could be questionable. It sounds like lots of Scotia investors are steering clear of any responsibility on this one, which I have to admit, seems to be a rather contagious disease in today’s boardroom leaders.