Kevin Thomas is Executive Director of the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE)
This commentary is adapted from a speech at the RRII gathering “Investing in Reconciliation and the Indigenous Economy: The role for institutional investors” on February 21, 2019 in Ottawa, Algonquin Anishnaabeg territories.
I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “reconciliation” when applied to relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada. At its worst, it can lead us to think that deep-rooted legal, historical, social, political and economic conflicts can be resolved with a group hug. More to the point, the term has always reminded me of the quote from Saul Alinsky, the great American community organizer, who said “Reconciliation is when one side has the power, and the other side is reconciled to it.”
My experience, in the decades I’ve worked with and for First Nations, has taught me instead that any real change can only come when we address the issue of power.
True reconciliation is about empowerment.
The genius of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and calls to action was in recognizing that reconciliation is about disrupting the status quo, not reconciling ourselves to it.
The other genius of the TRC’s calls to action was in recognizing the responsibility and the opportunity we all have in promoting it. We often think of power as a political question. We expect governments and politicians to resolve issues like Indigenous exclusion. However, power in our society is more often than not an economic issue. Throughout history, excluded communities have gained inclusion through economic empowerment, not just political empowerment.
Reconciliation is a process that is by its nature disruptive. It’s creative. It’s about power.
The good news is that it’s happening already here in Canada. The growth of the Indigenous economy is tremendous: the growth of the Indigenous workforce, the entrepreneurial activity, the networks, the knowledge – all of this is happening now and it’s happening fast. But all of that is nothing compared to the potential growth that is out there. It’s nothing compared to the empowerment that is within our reach if we’re serious about reconciliation.
A number of years ago SHARE began to develop a remarkable partnership with the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA) because we saw a common mission: to empower investors to advocate for a sustainable, inclusive, and productive economy. We both wanted to help connect investments with values. We have been pleased to work closely with NATOA and others, including the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), because they share our passion for empowerment and our belief that something can always be done.
That mission, whether in an Indigenous context with First Nations Trusts, or in the context of a pension plan or university endowment investments, is one best pursued in partnership with others. If we’ve learned anything of Indigenous values in these partnerships, it’s that empowerment and change is not a solo act. It’s done as a community, and with communities.
Our own organization works on behalf of pensions, foundations, asset managers, university endowments and other clients, helping those institutions to vote their shares, to engage collectively with the companies they own, to advocate for policy changes, and to identify opportunities to have a positive social or environmental impact through their investments.
That community of SHARE clients has more than $22.5 billion in assets under management, but we regularly bring them together with even larger groups of investors with trillions of dollars in assets, all of whom are learning the value that a sustainable, inclusive and productive economy creates for them as shareholders, and as citizens. And more importantly, learning — from each other — how much they are capable of, as investors, in bringing that better economy into being.
Institutional investors can bring more than just capital to the table (although, as any Indigenous entrepreneur can tell you, that capital is certainly welcome). Investors can bring their knowledge, experience, and capacity to advocate with the companies that they own, with the institutions they serve, and with the services they use, to improve Indigenous economic outcomes and therefore to contribute to that economic empowerment.
There is a growing community of institutional investors that are Indigenous themselves, and we hope that the outlook that those trusts bring to the mainstream investment community can be transformative. That mainstream institutional investors can bring not just capital, but their ears. To listen. To learn. To think, and then to act.
Reconciliation is a process that is by its nature disruptive. It’s creative. It’s about power. And it’s also about opportunity. I hope that if anything comes from our work, it’s a keen awareness of the opportunity we have to build a sustainable, inclusive and productive economy together.