Vancouver’s Walk for Reconciliation will remain etched in many participants’ memories for years to come. In a torrential downpour on September 22, 2013, approximately 70,000 people showed up in downtown Vancouver to celebrate diversity, honour residential-school survivors, and promote a new relationship between aboriginal and nonaboriginal people.
Organized by Reconciliation Canada with the help of a $500,000 grant from B.C.’s largest credit union, Vancity, the event capped off the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s visit to Vancouver to hear from residential-school survivors.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken from their parents and placed in government-funded church-run schools where many endured physical and sexual abuse.
Vancity president and CEO Tamara Vrooman was among those who shared the stage with residential-school survivor and Reconciliation Canada cofounder Chief Robert Joseph and other dignitaries on West Georgia Street before the procession began.
“It was an amazing thing to stand there and to look west up the street and to see nothing but people and umbrellas as far as you could see,” Vrooman recalled in a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “You know, I’ve spoken to many large groups in my career, but I have seen nothing the likes of that. And then to walk all together—all, I guess, 70,000 of us—across the Georgia Viaduct was really something special. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that.”
Values underscore Vancity's approach
Helping to lay the groundwork for the Walk for Reconciliation is one of many ways in which Vancity practises what it calls “values-based banking”. It’s a philosophy that’s gathering momentum around the world.
Vancity is one of 25 financial institutions in the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, a progressive international organization dedicated to “the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit”.
Members must meet three criteria: be independent and licensed with a focus on retail customers, have a minimum balance sheet of $50 million, and be committed to “social banking” and environmental responsibility.
“The global alliance really is working in the same way that Vancity is working to improve the lives of the people in their communities right around the world, in countries from Bangladesh to the Netherlands to Germany to Peru to the United States to Canada,” Vrooman said.
Under Vrooman’s leadership, Vancity became the first carbon-neutral credit union in North America in 2008.
The same year, the board of directors redefined wealth and embraced Vancity’s values-based approach to banking. And with assets of $17.5 billion and more than 500,000 members, according to its 2013 annual report, Vancity easily surpassed the financial threshold to join the global alliance.
She pointed out that Vancity’s values-based approach manifests itself in support not only for First Nations but also for first-time homebuyers, environmental initiatives, food security, and a living-wage policy.
“We define values-based banking as banking that’s fundamentally directed to improve not only the economic health and well-being of our members but also the community health as well as the environmental health,” Vrooman said. “So it’s really about using banking to make sure that we create a more healthy community.”
Public education is part of the mission
A healthy community is also an informed community. This explains why the credit union is also stimulating dialogue about a wide range of public issues and providing platforms for progressive and radical voices.
As an example, Vrooman was on-stage making introductory remarks at the Orpheum Theatre when Vancity sponsored a talk by U.S. economist and author Robert Reich in 2013.
The former U.S. secretary of labour is one of the world’s leading critics of growing inequality and a forceful advocate for higher taxes on the rich.
Some of these public discussions take place through the Vancity Office of Community Engagement in partnership with Simon Fraser University. The cochair of the Vancity Community Foundation, Am Johal, has brought provocative speakers to SFU Woodward’s on a wide range of topics, including climate change, urban planning, Islamophobia, and decolonization. These events are free and encourage audience participation.
Vrooman said that Vancity decided to fund the office to make SFU Woodward’s more accessible to residents of the Downtown Eastside and Gastown. She described Johal, a PhD candidate with experience in community education in the Downtown Eastside, as the “perfect candidate” to lead this initiative.
“He’s at the forefront of bringing provocative, diverse thinkers into the community, not just for people who normally have access to those folks but for the entire community,” Vrooman said.
First Nations and arts receive attention
At that 2013 Walk for Reconciliation, Vrooman was accompanied by her husband, her son, and many Vancity staff members who joined the mass of humanity streaming across the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. The crowd included some residential-school survivors as well as members of unions, churches, and groups representing young aboriginal and nonaboriginal people. The event culminated with speeches from First Nations leaders in a giant parking lot near Science World.
Vrooman explained that Chief Joseph and his daughter Karen approached the credit union with the idea of holding a walk to promote healing and reconciliation between people of different backgrounds. At the time, they wondered if Vancity might be interested in backing the idea.
“We absolutely took that opportunity,” Vrooman said. “It was new for us to do something on that scale as well, but the partnership ended up being quite amazing and personally affected very, very many members of our organization on the staff level as well as the members of the community.”
The Walk for Reconciliation is one of several First Nations initiatives that have benefited from Vancity’s financing. As an example, the Circle of Eagles Lodge Society provides services to aboriginal ex-offenders, helping them make the transition back into society. The credit union provided $600,000 to offset a shortfall in funding for a housing project.
Various arts organizations have also relied on Vancity to expand operations. Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, for instance, received a $600,000 term loan and a boost to its line of credit to enable it to add 220 seats, a new lighting system, and a rain garden.
Vancouver TheatreSports League is another local arts group that worked with Vancity, to open the 186-seat Improv Centre on Granville Island.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Vancity has become more involved in this type of lending in recent years. In a report commissioned by the credit union in 2007, Italian economist Pier Luigi Sacco outlined in detail how Vancity could stimulate the economy, promote employment, and create a healthier community by investing more of its financial resources into arts and culture.
One of Sacco’s recommendations was the creation of “an open-air cultural campus which would be strategically located on the city’s internal east-west border, with the Emily Carr Institute playing a leading role”.
“At the same time, the campus would be open to citizens and tourists, thereby contributing to the redefinition of the city’s social orientation toward access to cultural opportunities,” Sacco wrote.
The idea gathered momentum and, in 2013, the B.C. Liberal government announced $113 million in funding to move the Emily Carr University of Art + Design campus from Granville Island to Great Northern Way.
Sacco also recommended an “invasion of open space by the arts, music, and cultural community”. This has also occurred, with a proliferation of street festivals in Vancouver and musical events in parks across the region.
However, some of Sacco’s other ideas—such as returning Granville Island to the community—have not yet come to fruition. But the report still demonstrates how Vancity is reshaping the community in ways that aren’t always obvious to the public.
As an aside, Sacco’s mentor, University of Bologna economist Stefano Zamagni, is an adviser to the Vatican. Vrooman believes that he may have played a role in her being invited last July to a two-day summit of global economic leaders hosted by Pope Francis. The focus was on creating a more inclusive economy.
“When we have inequality, we limit the ability for people to participate not only in economic institutions but in the democratic institutions as well,” Vrooman said. “And if we don’t have people participating, it’s very difficult for us to grow the economy and to grow society in a healthy, sustainable way. So that is what he [the Pope] spoke to us about. It’s what he spoke to me personally about.”
Vrooman was also part of a Vancouver panel discussion in October with the Dalai Lama that focused on educating the heart.
“When would you have an opportunity to meet the head of one world religion and another within three months of each other?” she stated. “And so the Dalai Lama was speaking about some of the same things that the Pope was speaking about, but obviously from a different perspective.”
Vancity faces stiff competition
Vrooman readily acknowledged that chartered banks also fund worthwhile community projects. RBC, for instance, backs the Blue Water Project, which aims to promote access to drinkable, swimmable, and fishable water for future generations.
But Vrooman noted that although banks donate about one percent of their pretax profits to community initiatives, Vancity delivers 30 percent of its net income to members and the communities where they live and work.
According to her, Vancity also uses the “tools of banking, lending, investments, savings, RRSPs, and insurance” in a fundamentally different way.
“So for example, this past year we provided over $450 million in lending to community-based projects as well as businesses that are working either in a sustainable or socially equitable way, employing people with disabilities, creating alternative energy solutions, recycling alternatives,” Vrooman stated. “Those are the businesses that we target. So we like to think less as banks do about the shareholder returns in the short term and more because we’re owned by the people we serve. We don’t have a shareholder that’s demanding a cut of our profits. We can put them right back into the hands of those people we serve, our members, and our communities. And we do that not only with our profits but with our daily banking as well.”
For Vrooman and others at Vancity, it’s not always easy competing with the chartered banks. The federal government is phasing out a tax advantage for credit unions that enabled them to qualify for the small-business rate based on members’ shares and deposits.
“The removal of this deduction will result in higher taxes for Vancity in the future,” Vancity stated in its most recent annual report.
In addition, the Conservatives have slashed the mortgage-amortization period to 25 years, which is having a disproportionate impact in Vancouver, where housing costs and monthly mortgage payments are higher.
In its last three-year plan, Vancity reported that household debt in Canada was 163 percent of disposable income. This has led the credit union to conclude that the consumer-lending market is “saturated”, forcing it to focus attention in other areas.
Moreover, there were only 32,000 permanent jobs created in Canada in 2014. According to the credit union, housing prices are “more sensitive to job losses than interest rate increases”.
Yet Vancity’s strong focus on community initiatives and sustainability also comes as the environmental movement is zeroing in on the impact of globalization on the health of the planet.
Sustainability remains a touchstone
Canadian author Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, outlines how bilateral and regional free-trade deals have undermined government initiatives to promote more climate-friendly energy policies.
As an example, she documents how the World Trade Organization kiboshed Ontario’s incentives to encourage local companies to develop renewable-energy projects.
Next door in Quebec, an oil company has invoked Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement to try to overturn the province’s ban on hydraulic fracturing.
“To allow arcane trade law, which has been negotiated with scant public scrutiny, to have this kind of power over an issue so critical to humanity’s future is a special kind of madness,” Klein writes in her book.
What interests environmentalists is that some of the strongest proponents of international trade deals and the energy sector are bankers. So for Vrooman to devote so much attention to sustainability sets her apart from other CEOs in the lending industry.
In 2012, Vancity’s investment arm divested its holdings in Enbridge after the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board condemned the pipeline company’s response to an oil spill in Michigan.
“We are measured against our peers and the regulatory environment and we have set a high bar,” Vrooman wrote in the three-year plan. “In order to reach it, we must ensure that the change we seek inside Vancity is deeply held and permanent. We can expect to see competition intensify as financial institutions look for ways to differentiate themselves in a tough market. However, we believe that what we are doing cannot be easily replicated. We are achieving growth in a sustainable way and are allowing our members to grow with us.”
When the Straight asked who has been her greatest influence, Vrooman cited her maternal grandmother, Betty Stewart. She was a teacher who grew up in Merritt as the daughter of a coal miner.
“She was the original recycler,” Vrooman recalled. “She was never throwing things away. Everything had a use—not just for the sake of saving it but for the sake of repurposing it.”
Her grandmother, who died at the age of 96 in 2013, was exceedingly generous, didn’t take herself too seriously, and wasn’t afraid to debate politics with any man.
Vrooman wears a ring that her grandma gave to her, providing a daily reminder of her character and influence. Her grandmother was a woman of values, the type that Vrooman hopes to instill in her industry.