As thousands of Canadians plan to gather this weekend to begin demonstrating on Bay Street in Toronto and in cities across the country to express concern about bank and corporate irresponsibility and bank accountability issues, whether they know it or not, they are joining a movement that has been active and growing for the almost 15 years.
From 1996 to 1997, more than 100 citizen organizations from across Canada, large and small, from every sector, and with a collective membership of more than three million Canadians, came together in the Canadian Community Reinvestment Coalition. A couple of years later more than 30 organizations formed the Corporate Responsibility Coalition.
Since then, these two nation-wide coalitions, both coordinated by Democracy Watch and working along with other organizations, have won about half of the bank accountability and corporate responsibility measures they have pushed for, including: requirements that banks and other financial institutions disclose more details about their lending and service records annually (the first sector required to do this in Canada); the creation of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada regulatory organization; protections against gouging by banks; increased penalties for violating financial institution laws; measures that make it easier to hold corporate executives accountable for crimes committed by their employers, and that make it illegal to retaliate against employees who blow the whistle on corporate wrongdoing, and; measures that make it easier for shareholders to initiate resolutions to change the direction of big businesses, and make the Competition Bureau more independent and effective.
However, I believe that the federal or provincial government making these changes left open loopholes or built in flaws to undermine the effectiveness of these measures and enforcement agencies, including penalties that are still much too small.
And so the campaign continues for effective measures, and enforcement of the measures, to ensure Canada's big banks and big businesses act honestly, ethically, openly, representatively and prevent waste -- in other words, requirements to ensure they act responsibly and can be easily held accountable if they don't.
Fifteen key changes in five key areas are still needed to have an effective bank accountability and corporate responsibility system in Canada, and the window of opportunity is open now as the key federal laws that regulate Canada's big banks and biggest businesses are being reviewed over the next several months by the federal government.
So, as many commentators have pointed out, while the planned demonstrations don't have specific proposals for change, and as a result will not be as effective as they could be in pressing politicians and corporate executives to do anything that will actually address their concerns, demonstrators can easily join with the coalitions in supporting the push for these key changes.
To summarize the key changes, first, large corporations in every sector (including banks and other financial institutions) must be required by government to send a pamphlet in their mailings to individual shareholders and customers, and include a notice in their emails to these individuals. The pamphlet will describe and invite them to join watchdog groups for each corporate sector for a nominal annual membership fee of $30-$40.
In my estimation, there are about 10 to 20 million shareholders and customers of Canada's big businesses, and so with a five per cent response rate in each sector, watchdog groups with 500,000 to one million members, and annual budgets of $15-40 million will be created. The groups will be run by a board elected by and from members, and will educate and advocate for member concerns and fair consumer policies.
This proposed method of forming and funding citizen watchdog groups has been used successfully in the U.S. (it is Ralph Nader's idea), and it has been endorsed by a federal task force, a federal House of Commons and Senate committee, and an Ontario parliamentary committee.
A national survey compiled and analysed by Democracy Watch revealed that two-thirds of Canadians want it to be implemented for every industry sector in Canada. The method only needs to be implemented to balance the marketplace in a very low-cost and effective way in every industry sector in Canada.
Secondly, all corporations and financial institutions must be required to disclose their records of compliance with environmental, criminal, competition, human rights, labour, health and safety laws (including every complaint filed and court case initiated and how each is resolved), and key details about their business activities (such as lending, service and investment records for financial institutions) in an online, searchable database so that the public has easy access to the information and can judge whether they want to do business with each business.
Thirdly, regulatory agencies in each sector must be required to conduct regular, random audits of all the activities of businesses, including their profit margins to protect consumers against gouging -- currently many regulators sit back and wait for complaints about problems instead of proactively inspecting businesses to prevent problems.
Fourthly, penalties must be increased for corporate wrongdoing. Currently, for example, the maximum penalty for violating the Bank Act is only $200,000, which is essentially meaningless for banks that each make more than $15 billion annually.
Finally, a complete, effective whistleblower protection system must be created for anyone reporting corporate wrongdoing, including creating a fully independent, fully empowered and well-resourced agency to which complaints can be filed -- an agency that has the power to fully protect whistleblower from retaliation and to effectively penalize retaliators.
Any federal or provincial or territorial politicians interested in protecting the public from corporate greed and wrongdoing, and acting in the public interest, will (finally) work to make these key changes, all of which are broadly supported not just by the two nation-wide coalitions, but in several surveys of Canadians that have been conducted over the past two decades.
The question is, are there enough politicians across Canada who are interested in protecting the public to have these changes implemented, or will they all continue to protect Canada's big banks and big businesses from accountability for wrongdoing, gouging, pollution and other irresponsible actions as they have for the past 144 years?