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Religious communities can support reconciliation through their shareholder voice


By Sister Cecilia Hudec


For much of the last year unprecedented media, political and economic attention has been directed to a conflict simmering in a remote corner of North Dakota between an indigenous community and major pipeline developers. This situation may seem distantly removed from our own lives, but as Canadians, as people of faith, and as investors we are more intertwined than we think.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota is deeply worried about the impact of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on its sacred sites, burial grounds and, in the event of a spill or leak, its drinking water source. The tribe and U.S. federal agencies raised alarms about inadequate indigenous consultation and environmental review.

For months, indigenous peoples and supporters from across North America congregated at Standing Rock in peaceful protest to support the tribe. While the project was delayed many months, ultimately it was approved by the new U.S. administration and completed with Standing Rock’s concerns left on the table, unaddressed.

It would be easy to disregard this situation as just another example of the ideological division between industry and environmentalists. However, this reading misses the more fundamental significance of DAPL as a bell weather for the state of indigenous rights in North America.

The DAPL protest in North Dakota was the largest gathering of Native Americans in over 100 years. It was also an important event for indigenous peoples across the continent. First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples from Canada travelled to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Sioux or organized events in their home communities focused on water protection and indigenous land rights.

Ultimately what they seek is for business and government to respect their rights set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous Peoples for activities or decisions that would affect them or their territories and resources.

For Canadians, UNDRIP is also at the heart of the calls to action put out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In particular, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on Canadian businesses to apply the principles, norms, and standards in UNDRIP to corporate policies and activities involving indigenous peoples, their lands and resources.

This call to action is not only relevant to businesses, but to anyone who holds investments in a Canadian company. As religious communities and institutions we hold shares in Canadian companies through our pensions, trusts and foundations. With our shares comes the power and responsibility to influence how these companies operate in society, including ensuring they operate in a way that respects the rights of indigenous peoples.

One way that the Sisters of Charity is taking up this responsibility is through shareholder engagement. When we learned that Enbridge was buying into the DAPL project in the midst of the indigenous rights conflict, we worked with the Shareholder Association for Research and Education to reach out to the company to ask about the decision.

We then filed a shareholder resolution that asks Enbridge to report to all of its shareholders on its process for identifying and addressing social and environmental risks, particularly indigenous rights risks, when considering acquisitions. Four American religious investors joined in filing our resolution at Enbridge.

The resolution is on the ballot for the annual general meeting of Enbridge shareholders on May 11. It has already spurred conversation with the company about how it can improve its indigenous rights practices. We hope that a strong result on the vote will signal to Enbridge that reconciliation and respect for indigenous Peoples are of upmost importance to its shareholder.

If you hold personal or institutional investments, we encourage you to inquire into whether you hold Enbridge and how your shares are being voted.

Hudec is canonical treasurer of the Sisters of Charity in Halifax.