Ottawa; July 1, 2021: The National Arts Centre displays a message of support for the cause of reconciliation after the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who attended residential schools were found.
Ottawa; July 1, 2021: The National Arts Centre displays a message of support for the cause of reconciliation after the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who attended residential schools were found. PaulMcKinnon/iStockphoto

As Canada reckons with the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples, the financial community is looking for opportunities to support reconciliation.

Since May, the country has been starkly reminded of the fact that thousands of Indigenous children were buried in unmarked graves at residential schools. Recent revelations have sparked national horror and grief, as well as a renewed focus on reconciliation — a goal that can be achieved with the help of investors.

“There are ample opportunities for investors to act in support and alignment with reconciliation,” said Katherine Wheatley, program manager with the Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative, a partnership between the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) and the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA).

Investors achieved a milestone in April, when SHARE filed a shareholder proposal related to Indigenous reconciliation and inclusion with TMX Group Inc. on behalf of the Atkinson Foundation as part of the Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative.

TMX Group recommended voting for the proposal — the first time a proposal on reconciliation had been endorsed by the board of a Canadian company, according to SHARE. The proposal passed with 98% approval on May 12.

“As shareholders, we are in the early stages of awakening to the power we have nationally,” said Mark Sevestre, senior advisor and founding member of NATOA. He estimates that Indigenous communities in Canada manage, or could be eligible to manage, approximately $10 billion in funds.

Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action 92 defined reconciliation for corporate Canada by asking it to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Doing so would involve actions such as ensuring equitable job access for Indigenous peoples and educating staff on Indigenous rights.

“The fact that people wear orange shirts [to raise awareness of residential schools] — that’s nice, but what does that really accomplish?” Sevestre said. “For us, the biggest impact we will have is connecting with investment managers and advisors who don’t think they have anything to do with any of the solutions in this area.”

From risk to opportunity

Indigenous organizations such as the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) have developed metrics and indicators to aid investors interested in reconciliation (more details below).

Historically, companies have tended to look at Indigenous relations as a potential source of liability, Wheatley said, asking questions such as “What do we do if Indigenous people exercise their rights?” or “What if communities don’t agree with this development?”

“We are keen to explore and highlight ways to move beyond that risk lens,” she said. “There are great opportunities to advance economic growth together in ways that are sustainable, inclusive and resonate from the perspectives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”

In addition to the TMX Group engagement, SHARE has engaged successfully on Indigenous issues with firms such as Sun Life Financial and Great-West Lifeco, Wheatley said. Both companies have agreed to provide additional disclosures on Indigenous relations, and Sun Life has signed up for CCAB’s Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) certification. SHARE was also part of an investor group that influenced Edmonton’s CFL team to change its name to the Elks.

Wheatley attributes these successes to greater awareness of the need for reconciliation and broader disclosure trends around environmental, social and governance metrics.

During shareholder engagements, “one of the responses we’ll get from companies is ‘We didn’t know investors cared about this information,’” Wheatley said. “Things we didn’t use to perceive as highly material to companies’ success are [now] being amalgamated with financial disclosures.”

Representation of Indigenous peoples in the executive suite is becoming increasingly material, Sevestre said.

“‘Indigenizing’ the workforce and having those voices on corporate boards will lead to consideration of Indigenous issues,” Sevestre said. “A lot of the work we’re trying to do is increasing the opportunity for qualified Indigenous people to get into these roles and impact the decisions these companies make.”

For retail investors looking to allocate their funds directly to Indigenous businesses, there are only a few products, such as bonds issued by the First Nations Finance Authority.

Kevin Thomas, CEO of SHARE, said institutional investors’ interest in reconciliation should spur the development of more products for retail investors. Thomas noted the Raven Indigenous Impact Capital Fund, which launched earlier this year, attracted $25 million from institutional investors across Canada and the U.S. by the time it closed on Jan. 31.

Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of CCAB, encouraged institutional investors to consider funds like Raven that invest in Indigenous-led organizations that serve Indigenous communities. For example, Raven-funded OneFeather Mobile Technologies Ltd. launched a digital Indigenous banking app in July. The company also runs an online voting platform that has served 30% of Canada’s First Nations communities.

Investing according to Indigenous values

Sevestre said NATOA’s partnership with SHARE has helped Indigenous communities better understand their responsibilities as shareholders and demand more from their investment managers.

Investment managers may not realize that Indigenous communities could have different priorities. “I’ve had an investment manager say to me, ‘Oh, you’re Indigenous, so you’re against oil.’ Well, some are, some aren’t,” Sevestre said.

However, many Indigenous communities do not want to invest in companies that may infringe on their rights or harm their territories. “Traditional and cultural values need to be included in our investment policies, because what goes into those portfolios needs to be a reflection of the values we hold,” he said.

Several Indigenous communities in North America have done just that.

The Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin Trust Fund’s investment policy, for example, states that the trust must invest in a manner consistent with Native American values and that it “prefers to invest in companies that make positive contributions to alleviating the problems facing society and the environment.”

The Carcross/Tagish First Nations, meanwhile, include their values of integrity, selflessness, honour, respect, courage and knowledge in the Dáanaa Jíli (Cache) Act, which governs investment and other policies.

Bull said she hopes awareness of and commitment to Indigenous reconciliation continues to gain momentum even after the headlines about atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples begin to dwindle.

“I’m really hopeful that this isn’t going to be a media blitz and then we go back to forgetting about our past,” she said. “Unfortunately, it will be a year of continuing to discover children’s remains. We know they are out there and that [the discoveries are] really just a confirmation, and it’s going to be hard for Indigenous people — but it is going to keep the conversation at the top of our minds.”

The 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line, 1-866-925-4419, is available for those who need support.

With files from Mark Burgess

What to look for when investing for reconciliation

PAR certification

The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) developed the Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) certification in 2001 and has certified more than 150 companies.

“The PAR program is a process and a path to help corporations build their Indigenous inclusion strategy, and to help them move toward their own fulfillment of [Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action] 92,” said Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of CCAB. “My hope is that someday, a listing of TMX companies will also include their PAR certification.”

The PAR program verifies corporate initiatives and outcomes in four key performance areas:

  1. Leadership actions (e.g., policy setting, removing structural barriers)
  2. Employment (e.g., recruitment, retention, advancement)
  3. Business development (e.g., procurement from Indigenous firms, supply chain engagement)
  4. Community relationships (e.g., community investment, engaging with Indigenous stakeholders)

“In just Q1 of this year, we’ve brought on over 25 corporations,” Bull said. Many businesses that joined in the past few years, such as Uber, operate nationally and in urban centres, she added. “That’s a very different story than having to build a relationship with Indigenous communities because you’re impacting their land. [These companies] want to build better relationships and understand how they can do better.”

Companies can be either PAR Committed (taking steps to become certified) or PAR Certified. Certification has three levels: bronze, silver and gold. Gold companies have demonstrated “sustained leadership” in building strong relationships with Indigenous stakeholders.

Bank of Montreal and Scotiabank are PAR Gold Certified companies. ATB Financial, CIBC and Sun Life are PAR Committed.

Business and reconciliation

The Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative has released two reports on corporate Canada’s progress in advancing reconciliation. The second report came out in March.

The reports looked at indicators within six main categories:

  1. Diversity policies
  2. Employment and advancement
  3. Contracting and procurement
  4. Training and education
  5. Indigenous rights (e.g., whether the issuer acknowledges the need to seek free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples)
  6. Community investment

The March report looked at 78 issuers’ disclosures from 2019 and found that 26% of companies stated that they prioritize employment of Indigenous people, up from 13% in 2016. The financial sector’s efforts, however, were lacking: “There is considerable space for improving reconciliation-related disclosures, with no more than three of the 13 sampled institutions reporting on any single indicator.”

Advisor’s Edge analyzed the most recent financial and sustainability reports from 20 banks, insurers, asset managers and advisory firms that operate in Canada. Of those, nine identify the percentage of Indigenous employees, with five of those noting goals for Indigenous representation. Nine of the 20 companies mentioned Indigenous community investments and/or Indigenous-focused training programs for their employees.