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Pensions Deep into Weapons, Toxins, Sweatshops

The Canadian Pension Plan makes no apologies for its big shift into stocks, including Walmart and 15 top military contractors.

By Tom Sandborn 17 Oct 2004 |

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

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The investment experts at the arms-length body that administers Canada Pension Plan funds are facing fierce criticism these days. Critics say the CPP Investment Board managers are pouring public money into war production, tobacco companies and firms like Wal Mart with unsavory reputations for labour and environmental abuses. They also challenge the prudence of shifting CPP money into the volatile and uncertain arena of the stock market, away from the public bond holdings that have traditionally both backed up Canada Pensions and financed public infrastructure across Canada.

On September 16, 2004, a lone peace activist, Cynthia Flood, attended the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board meeting held in Vancouver's Metropolitan Hotel. She was there to voice her objections to the Board's investment of Canada Pension Plan money in some of the world's most significant arms companies.

Inspired by the background research of Richard Sanders at Ottawa's Coalition to Oppose the Arms trade, Flood wanted to know why Canadian pension money was funding arms companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. According to Sanders, the Investment Board has placed more than $2.5 billion in the hands of companies making jet fighters, munitions, battlefield electronics and land mines, managing to invest in 15 of the world's top 20 arms companies.

This investment decision with our pension money, taken together with the Board's investments in tobacco companies, a choice recently denounced by the nation's doctors, raises serious concerns about a perceived lack of ethical investment standards at the Board.

Canadian Medical Association a critic

Cynthia Flood went to downtown Vancouver's posh Metropolitan Hotel to register her concerns with the Vancouver session of the consultation road show the Investment Board is required to conduct every two years. (Full disclosure. Cynthia is not only an old friend and respected colleague of mine, but also someone I've collaborated with on peace and social justice projects over the years.)

Although grievously outnumbered in the hotel meeting room, with only two elderly Unitarians and a Raging Granny to back her up in a room full of business class enthusiasts, Cynthia was there to voice concerns about whether CPP investing reflected the values of most Canadian citizens.

More and more Canadians are asking the same questions these days. The Canadian Medical Association, for one, has called for the CPP Investment Board to stop putting public money into the tobacco industry, and Ottawa's Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade is urging the arms length investment agency to withdraw pension funds from the many war industries that currently adorn our CPP portfolio, a demand echoed by some MPs in a major five hour House debate this spring.

Into stocks, out of provincial bonds

Cynthia  Flood had recently learned about one of Canada's best kept secrets -- the shift of Canada Pension Plan funding out of the provincial bonds where it has traditionally been invested since the creation of the CPP into the stock market, where many critics warn of  both fiscal and ethical dangers. Begun on Paul Martin's watch as Finance Minister in 1997, the shift into questionable stock market investments has been accelerating since he became Prime Minister.

In the fiscal year ending March 2004, for example, the amount of CPP money poured into stocks has doubled from fifteen to thirty billion dollars, with a troubling $2.5 billion going into investments in war industries. Thanks to this little known policy shift at the Investment Board, every one of the 16 million of us who pay into the CPP plan are now part owners in 15 of the top 20 weapons producers in the world, not to mention lung searing tobacco stock and "partnership" with notorious sweatshop vendors like Wal Mart.    Some of us, like Flood, object to being in business with companies that profit from shredded flesh, poisoned lungs and cropped off limbs.

Pensions 'not vehicles for advocacy'

John A. McNaughton, the finance industry veteran who has run the board since it was established in the 90s, has a standard answer for Cynthia and any other Canadian workers feeling squeamish about the use of their pension funds, an answer he's been compelled to give often enough that it is now a standard feature on the CPPIB webpage. There, he argues, targeting the criticism of tobacco investments voiced by Canada's doctors, but clearly with anti-war critics in mind as well:

"If the CMA's campaign is successful, it is only a matter of time before other equally well-intentioned organizations demand that other enterprises and industries be added to the CPP Investment Board's proscribed list. And were it acceptable to prohibit investments for non-investment reasons, then surely it would be acceptable also to require the CPP Investment Board to commit capital to financially unattractive but politically opportune or socially justifiable investments. The result: the securities of legal businesses would be deemed illegal investments; poor investments would become required investments. This is not a formula for success.

"Further," he contends, "Pension funds are not vehicles for advocacy groups to advance their aims, however worthy."

So, Cynthia Flood got her answer in Vancouver on September 16. The investment decisions made with our pooled assets by the CPP Investment Board are not to be guided by sissy concerns like human rights or life preservation. Maximum return on equity, not special interests like folks who like to breath or don't want to invest in choking off other people's breath, will guide all CPP investment decisions.

Ethics, it would appear, don't even come into the conversations around the CPPIB boardroom table. Welcome to the True North, Strong and Profitably Invested.

Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver writer.  [Tyee]

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