Gord 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.
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