A group that advises activist shareholders hopes a new report will do for Indigenous issues what has already been done for environmental causes — put them on the boardroom table.
"The purpose is to start to delve into the issue of the business role in reconciliation and where investors fit in that," said Delaney Greig, author of the report for SHARE Canada.
SHARE is a non−profit research agency that advises institutional investors on the social responsibility performance of potential investments. It serves 30 such Canadian investors with more than $14 billion in assets under management, including churches, universities and foundations.
Information on environmental performance is becoming routine disclosure for more businesses all the time, said Greig. She looked into how many companies take the same approach to reporting on Aboriginal issues such as leadership, employment, contracting, training, rights and community investment.
The answer is, not many.
"Most of the rating agencies and data sources investors can get don’t even include indicators on Indigenous issues," said Greig.
She sent out questionnaires to 173 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in eight different sectors. She found that while many companies tout upbeat stories — whether it be a successful Indigenous employee or a smooth−running partnership with an Aboriginal community — few report those interactions with anything like the rigour ethical investors need.
The most common form of reporting was highlighting a company’s investment in an Aboriginal community, but even then less than one−third of companies systematically made such statements. Spending money in those communities can be problematic without more context, the report says.
"Although these contributions and initiatives can be beneficial, they are often short−term, ad hoc and self−interested."
About one−fifth of companies had systematic means of reporting on Aboriginal employment or contracting with Aboriginal businesses.
Five per cent reported on Indigenous presence in senior or management roles. Out of all companies surveyed, only one financial company, one energy company and three mining companies committed to Aboriginal communities’ right to free, prior and informed consent to new projects.
Greig acknowledged corporate reporting on Aboriginal issues doesn’t create the same liability issues as environmental reports do.
"There are a number of risks, from legal to operational delays. But at the same time, it’s not just the risks but the opportunities that building stronger relationships and having reliable partners (can create)."
She also acknowledged that some of the issues her report discusses, such as consent, are still open questions in the Canadian legal system.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly grappled with issues of consultation and consent. Recent examples came Wednesday with high court decisions on an Inuit challenge of seismic testing off Baffin Island and changes to a pipeline opposed by the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in southwestern Ontario.
Greig noted that the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded business has a role to play.
"Industry and business play an extremely significant role in how the economic, social, and cultural aspects of reconciliation are addressed, including the extent to which opportunities and benefits are truly shared with Indigenous peoples," the report said.
Greig said she hopes her findings will be the first step toward creating a transparent, measurable benchmark to assess a company’s treatment of Indigenous people.
"Inevitably, we’ll get there. But it’s a rocky road."