TORONTO — Canadians across the country are taking the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) to task over its holdings in companies that build private prisons in the U.S.
Organizers, activists and members of the public packed a meeting hosted by the CPPIB on Monday in Vancouver. The meetings were designed to give the Canadian public a chance to ask questions of the CPPIB leadership.
"The CPP is often unresponsive to public pressure, kind of an impenetrable fortress," said Emma Pullman, lead campaign manager at Sum of Us, a Vancouver-based non-profit that is one of the organizing forces behind the protests. "These meetings gave us the perfect opportunity to bring this issue to light."
First reported by The Guardian, the CPPIB has faced public pressure since the discovery that it holds US$5.9 million of stock in two of the largest private prison contractors in the United States. There are two petitions with almost 55,000 signatures demanding the pension board divest its shares in the companies immediately.
CoreCivic, which operates more than 65 correctional and detention facilities, is one of those companies. It was recently named in a US$60 million claim after a Guatemalan toddler died shortly after her release from a CoreCivic facility in Texas.
GEO Group is another one of the largest for-profit prison contractors in the U.S., managing 129 prisons, immigration detention centres and youth facilities across the country.
Both companies own detention centres near the U.S. border with Mexico — facilities that have benefitted from U.S. President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy against asylum seekers. Attention to their practices has grown after recent violent clashes at the southern border.
CPPIB manages the pensions of some 20 million Canadian retirees, and the fund is exposed to over 3,000 companies around the world.
"With the total fund as of the end of our first quarter (June 30) valued at $366.6 billion, those investments represent about 0.001 per cent of holdings," CPPIB's director of global corporate communications Deborah Allen said in an email to HuffPost Canada.
In a Nov. 20 speech in Toronto, CPPIB chief executive Mark Machin reiterated the organization's profit-driven mandate — "to maximize returns without undue risk of loss" — and suggested that divestment of the controversial stocks wasn't part of the plan.
Divesting achieves little for CPPIB and all of our stakeholders. There is a large supply of capital in both public and private markets that can step in if we were to exit.Mark Machin, CPPIB
"From time to time we, like many investors, are challenged by people who put pressure on us to divest if they disagree with the policies or actions of a company we have chosen to invest in," Machin said. "Divesting achieves little for CPPIB and all of our stakeholders. There is a large supply of capital in both public and private markets that can step in if we were to exit."
He also stated that "the best way to positively influence corporate behaviour is through principled, constructive and collaborative engagement."
For some Canadians, that answer isn't good enough.
Tamara, who asked that her last name be withheld out of fear of repercussions at work, is a Vancouver mother who works with pension funds and investments. She thinks the idea of engagement with CoreCivic and GEO Group is "laughable." She took time off to attend Monday's meeting as a citizen.
"It's disgusting to me that an organization that all Canadian citizens contribute to is invested in this ugly, deplorable practice of detaining immigrants in the U.S.," she told HuffPost. "How do you engage with a company that violates human rights standards like that?"
People don't think about the real human implications when they talk about investments. My hope was that they'd feel it if they looked at an actual child.Tamara, Vancouver resident
Tamara was one of several audience member to ask a question of Michel Leduc, CPPIB's global head of public affairs at the Vancouver meeting. She was curious if CPPIB's stocks were selected by a computer algorithm (commonly known as "passive" management) or personally selected by a team of investors (known as "active" management).
"I want to be completely transparent," Leduc began in audio of the meeting obtained by HuffPost. "These securities are...not only in passive, they're also in our active as well. By definition it means we're making active decisions based on investment skills."
Leduc's 11-minute response was met with angry shouting.
"They say their decisions are based on what's best for Canadians and their money," Tamara said to HuffPost. "But if we're talking about policies that undermine human rights, promote inequality, contribute to mass incarceration — are those policies really best for Canadian investments?"
Tamara said she held her three-year-old son when she was speaking out at the public meeting.
"When we talk about putting children in cages, we're talking about kids same age as my little guy," she said to HuffPost. "People don't think about the real human implications when they talk about investments. My hope was that they'd feel it if they looked at an actual child."
Pullman remains hopeful that CPPIB will elect to dump the shares outright, if public pressure remains strong.
She cited an earlier example when Sum of Us pressured various Canadian advertisers to pull their ads off Breitbart, a far-right website known for its racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ writing.
"The initial response was...that a computer decided where and when [the ads] would perform best," Pullman recalled. "But once there was adequate public dissatisfaction, the advertisers had to respond, and a cataclysmic shift happened very quickly."
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Reached by email, CPPIB global media relations director Darryl Konynenbelt declined to comment further on the agency's plans to divest.
The final public meeting, where organizers will formally present the petition to the CPPIB, will take place on Nov. 30 at the Pantages Hotel in Toronto, about a 10-minute walk from the agency's headquarters.
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