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Canada’s big banks and insurers said Monday they have secured approval to host virtual annual meetings again next year, raising concerns about how those meetings may be run.

Organizations like the Shareholder Association for Research & Education say that while the format could improve participation, too often that hasn’t happened as companies limit or screen questions, or don’t allow them at all.

“Some have used this virtual format as a way to limit participation, rather than to expand it,” said Kevin Thomas, chief executive of the association.

He said that while the financial industry hasn’t done a terrible job, there’s ample opportunities to improve shareholder participation.

Annual meetings should allow shareholders to not only communicate with the board, but with each other by hearing the questions being asked, said Thomas.

RBC’s Global Wealth Management team itself raised concerns in 2020 about the rise of virtual-only AGMs, noting in a report on the trend that questions were being vetted ahead of time by some companies, and that the lack of real-time voting limited shareholders’ ability to respond to issues raised at meetings.

In jointly announcing the court order approval Monday, the banks and insurers said they are looking for ways to improve the meetings: “We are considering ways to enhance the participant experience in 2022, leveraging the learnings from our respective 2020 and 2021 annual meetings.”

The order, which allows either a hybrid or electronic-only model, was announced in a joint statement by BMO, CIBC, Canadian Western Bank, Laurentian Bank, National Bank, RBC, Scotiabank, TD Bank Group, Great-West Lifeco, Canada Life, Manulife and Sun Life.

It follows similar orders obtained by the companies in March 2020 and December 2020.

The banks and insurance companies said they are not allowed to hold electronic annual meetings in lieu of an in-person meeting without a court order.

The specific arrangements for each meeting will be announced separately.