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Is RBC Chair Kathleen Taylor Fit to be York University's New Chancellor?

Kathleen Taylor was recently announced York University’s 14th Chancellor. Taylor is the first female chair of one of the big Canadian banks and has been since 2014. Clearly, this was a nod to acknowledge and support women who have broken through the glass ceiling of gender inequality in the workplace. It’s hard to overstate the importance of what her position means to gender equality especially among the executive and board ranks where men continue to dominate.

But it is critical that we consider the full scope of performance of the leader of Canada’s top bank. During Taylor’s tenure on the RBC board, which takes back to 2001, we’ve seen RBC dragging their feet on ESG commitments, becoming Canada’s top financier (and the world’s 5th largest financier) of the fossil fuel industry (CBC, 2021). After only recently supporting Mark Carney’s Climate Alliance initiative that would see banks reduce their support of fossil fuels, Canadian banks (along with other global banks) are threatening to withdraw their commitments. From 2015 to 2019, RBC has spent up to $263 billion on fossil fuel projects and there is no sign of this financing waning. While RBC's defense is that they see their role in transitioning the fossil fuel industry, this gives them full autonomy over defining what this actually means without any legitimate targets for reduction of said financing.

Then take a recent inquiry launched by the Competition Bureau, a federal law enforcement agency, alleging that RBC is greenwashing their climate commitments. The inquiry is looking into whether RBC is misleading stakeholders when they claim that they support the principles of the Paris Agreement and that they will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in the backdrop of immense financing of fossil fuels. It is unlikely that the bureau would go beyond an inquiry not because the allegations are false but because it’s really hard to definitively prove that RBC is falsifying their commitments when the targets they put forward are so far into the future.

On top of all this, should we not consider RBC’s role in aggressively lobbying to quash competition in a highly oligopolistic and lop-sided industry characterized by immense market power. Oh, and let's not forget the solid evidence of consumer exploitation through aggressive sales tactics in the backdrop of a highly financially illiterate market context. Here is an excerpt from one of RBC’s executives during the Covid-19 pandemic that demonstrates how tone deaf the organization is when it comes to meeting societal needs:

“We basically took down the marketing machine and said, now is not the time to be trying to sell things. Now is the time to help.” (Neil McLauglin, RBC’s group of head of personal and commercial banking)

Duh! Shouldn't you be helping your consumers as a default? The above quotation is very consistent with the results of a CBC investigation that found the big banks engaged in aggressive sales tactics to push on financially illiterate consumers products and services that they do not need. When you have such a significant imbalance of power in an industry with 30-40% profit margins in a backdrop of a highly exploitable marketplace, we expect so much more from leaders of these institutions.

It's also important to consider that there is a sizable portion of the Canadian market who simply cannot access financial services. These tend to be highly marginalized segments of our society who have no choice but to turn to highly exploitable pay-day loans. These segments are typically denied service because they are not profitable. But if the conversation here is to reward true leaders, I expect much more from an organization like RBC.

I’m quite disappointed by York’s decision to name Taylor the new Chancellor of a university that embodies equity, diversity, inclusion, and climate action. While I get the nod to female executive leadership, the hypocrisy that surrounds this decision is difficult to avoid especially given that there are so many women leaders out there who have achieved so much in a male dominated executive environment without having to abandon principles of income inequality, market fairness, and climate action.

Photo: "fossil fuel>>> on the way out" by Don Hankins is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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