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CPP Sells Shares in US Prison Companies After Pressure Campaign

Pension plan had invested in two firms that operated migrant detention camps.

By Hina Imam 8 Jul 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Hina Imam is completing a practicum at The Tyee. She is a student at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @hinazimam.

Two advocacy groups are claiming victory after the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board sold its shares in two companies that operate migrant detention camps along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In October, the Guardian reported that the CPP, which provides pension benefits for some 20 million Canadians, had invested in the companies.*

The CPP investment board responded then that it decided on investments based on the rate of return and risk. It does not screen individual investments “based on social, religious, economic or political criteria,” the board said in a statement.

But last week Leadnow and SumOfUs reported the pension plan board had sold its holdings in GEO Group and CoreCivic, which manage migrant detention camps.

Leadnow’s Brittany Smith said supporters “signed petitions, wrote letters, and spoke to CPP executives face-to-face” to argue against investment in companies profiting from widely criticized migrant detention camps.

Amelia Meister of SumOfUs said the campaign showed the power of protest. 

“This divestment signals that when people in Canada come together, we have the power to change the practices of huge pension funds,” she said.

New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus has asked the board whether its divestment was based on ethical issues, and whether that signalled a change in CPP’s policies around ethical investing.

The Tyee asked Brittany Smith, campaign manager at Leadnow, about the campaign. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Tyee: Can you walk us through the process of pushing CPP to divest from these U.S. private corporations involved in detention camps?

Brittany Smith: People were shocked when the story broke linking CPP and our retirement savings to these for-profit prison companies that are detaining the victims for [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s border crackdown.

Immediately we whipped up a petition, and within days tens of thousands of people, and members of Leadnow from across the country, were adding their name. We launched mass Twitter and cellphone sharing campaigns to raise awareness. The more they found out about these really terrible investments, the more the opposition grew. We also sent thousands of letters to the CPP, and hundreds of Leadnow members showed up to speak at events across the country.

What was it about this campaign that made it a success? Would you say it was the shareholder kind of activism?

We don’t work with shareholders. We work with members of the public, ordinary people, small-business owners, etc.

The CPP has a responsibility to maintain public trust in this public pension plan, and it’s really not surprising that these irresponsible private prison investments were eroding public trust. I think the engagement around Leadnow’s campaign really proved that. These were ordinary people taking time out of their day to sign petitions, flood inboxes, donate to get ads up and show up in person to meetings. Part of the Leadnow model is bringing ordinary people together to put pressure on decision makers to make change, and here we really succeeded.

What challenges did you face?

Getting a pension fund to divest from assets, in my experience, is hard. It’s a testament to our campaign that we secured this win. To be honest, these prison investments, especially happening in this moment, where we are seeing the horrors of what’s going on in Trump’s America, it wasn’t surprising to me that the public and Leadnow members were as outraged as they were and CPP divested. Because the reputational cost of being linked to investments like these far outweighs the financial returns.

Any key takeaway that you may apply to future campaigns?

I think what is interesting is the Leadnow model. We have half a million people across the country. We are larger than any political party. We are an independent multi-issue campaign organization which brings ordinary people together at key moments to try and make progress on certain issues.

The key is the people power part of our model, the most exciting and original part of our model, and the reason we have impact. Our members are just ordinary people, they care about political issues, and they share values about making Canada a more fair, cleaner and just country. They also find it hard to get involved and actually make change, and so the whole point of Leadnow and the whole point of staff like me is to enable ordinary people to get involved.

We find moments that we could have influence on. We build what is needed to bring people together or to hit the streets. We work to build the systems and strategies that can enable Canadians’ engagement in democratic process and help them have agency over decisions that affect their lives. We enable people to take actions about issues they care about. It’s not just a staff team doing all the work. It’s people.

In the larger scheme of things, what does the win mean for Canadian politics right now?

It opens up the conversation. CPP has a social responsibility policy.... It opens up the conversation around the needs for stronger restrictions and screening methods to make sure we are not investing in morally abhorrent assets like private prisons.

From an investment perspective, this isn’t actually hard to do. Pensions and investment firms put negative screens on investments and assets all the time.

I think it also opens up the conversation around wanting more transparency, accountability, and democracy within the CPP. I think Canadians want and should have a say in where their retirement savings go. Here they didn’t want their savings to go to private prison companies, and Leadnow’s campaign helped make sure that they divested. I think it brings up a lot of interesting and important conversations moving forward about ethical investments and how these unethical investments were made and prevent them in the future.

*Story updated on July 8 at 10:18 a.m. to clarify that the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) provides pension benefits to 20 million Canadians in general as opposed to just retirees.  [Tyee]

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