Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

Michael is Associate Editor of The Catholic Register.

He is an award-winning writer and photographer and holds a Master of Arts degree from New York University.

Follow him on Twitter @MmmSwan, or click here to email him.

Rose of Sharon TORONTO - When Ontario Finance Minster Dwight Duncan receives the pre-budget submission from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, he’s not going to be surprised by the spending priorities of the 28 agencies Catholic Charities funds. But Catholic Charities hopes to catch Duncan’s attention with their reasons for increased social spending.

Catholic Charities agencies serve Toronto communities by supporting teenaged mothers, helping the deaf, caring for young people with developmental disabilities, providing day care and counselling couples and families in crisis. They want Duncan to put money in service of the poor. They’re asking for:

  •  a $100 a month healthy food supplement to welfare payments to try to reduce reliance on food banks for 375,000 people every month who visit an Ontario food bank;

  •  raising the Ontario Child Benefit for low-income families to $1,500 by 2013. The $1,100 OCB is scheduled to rise to $1,310 by 2013;
As mud and water claim lives and homes around the world, Catholics in Canada are exploring ways they might help.

Floods have claimed 680 lives in Brazil and left 21,500 homeless in the worst natural disaster to hit South America’s largest country in 40 years. In Australia floods have killed 30 people, 20,000 have been forced out of their homes and 60 towns submerged in the western state of Queensland. Colombia was hit with mudslides just before Christmas that killed 301 people, injured 292, destroyed more than 5,000 homes, damaged over 300,000 homes and flooded 1.32 million hectares of farm land.
In the 20th century big business was strictly business.  

But in the 21st century companies can’t stay in business if they’re ignoring the environment, hushing talk of human and labour rights or not returning calls from shareholders who want to know what the board is doing and why.

Socially responsible investors are no longer on the fringe of the investment world. Where 10 years ago talk of ethical investing drew smirks and rolling eyeballs, today it’s a top-line concern of boards, CEOs and CFOs.

“The huge difference (compared to 10 years ago) is that we’ve seen acceptance in the mainstream,” said Michael Jantzi, CEO and founder of Jantzi Sustainalytics.

On the environment, social issues and governance, corporations now see non-financial issues, once considered “externalities,” central to running a successful business in the long term, said Jantzi, who established Canada’s socially responsible investing (SRI) stock index — the Jantzi Social Index — in 2000.

“We’re only going to see an increased level of interest in these issues,” he said.

Particularly on the environment, corporations now regard the risks as anything but external, said Social Investment Organization executive director Eugene Ellmen.

“The BP disaster really was a wake-up call. It was a wake-up call for the mainstream industry,” said Ellmen.

SRI investors knew BP was running risks in the Gulf of Mexico long before it happened and avoided the stock. Investors who ignored the environmental risks paid the price.

The investment industry in Canada is not the world leader in sustainable, socially responsible investment.

With 13 separate jurisdictions and regulators at the federal level opting for voluntary codes of conduct and optional enforcement, the global investment industry is setting the tone.

Two international covenants have become central pillars in the world of ESG (environment, social and governance) investing. The Carbon Disclosure Project includes 534 institutional investors around the world representing $64 trillion in assets. The corporations and investment funds that subscribe to the London-based CDP are committed to researching and publishing the amount of carbon their business operations release into the atmosphere.

Four-hundred-and-eighty-five investment managers, 220 asset owners and 168 professional service partners with $22 trillion in assets under management have signed the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment. The stock market meltdown of fall 2008 didn’t drive the big investors away from ESG. The largest number of UNPRI signatories came on board after the crisis.

In Canada, the big public pension funds are leading the way. The Caisse de dépot et placement du Quebec, OPSEU Pension Trust, British Columbia Municipal Pension Plan and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board are all signatories to the UNPRI.

“On the Canadian scene specifically, I think we’ve got some great leadership here in the pension community,” said Jantzi.

When the big pension funds call up asking about future environmental liabilities, Canada’s publicly traded companies respond.

“Institutional investors are continuing to press for more disclosure on environmental, social and governance issues,” said Jantzi. “And the companies are having to respond.”

Canadian markets will be led more by global trends than local regulation, according to Jantzi.

“On a global scale, Canadian financial markets just don’t have a huge amount of heft,” he said.

Canadian regulators, particularly the Ontario Securities Commission, are beginning to set conditions that will make SRI standard practice. The OSC may soon require publicly traded companies to “say-on-pay.” The SRI community has long demanded that boards reveal how much CEOs and other senior management make — and disclose what incentives are built into their compensation.

Even without enforceable say-on-pay rules, ESG Services, working for Ethical Funds and its parent NEI Investments, has been researching how oil sands company CEOs are paid, and whether their pay is tied to reductions in environmental liabilities.

They’ve found that the oil sands bosses get paid even if nobody knows how much it will cost shareholders to clean up vast tailing ponds or compensate native communities for downstream health outcomes.

For private investors — people who typically buy mutual funds at tax time — the chance to influence corporate Canada on the environment, social issues and governance has expanded exponentially in a decade. Where once persistence was required to persuade a financial advisor to sell an SRI mutual fund, now all the big banks offer socially responsible funds.

There’s also been a series of buy-outs of smaller SRI mutual fund companies that have made the funds more easily available. Where Ethical Funds were once only available at some credit unions they’re now sold through Desjardins Bank and the independent brokers that deal with Northwest and Ethical Investments (NEI). Acuity mutual funds are now similarly available through the much larger distribution network of AGF Management Limited.

“It puts the socially responsible mutual fund companies on more equal footing,” said Jantzi. “A lot of those advantages haven’t fully kicked in yet.”

While the funds are more available, it doesn’t mean that they’ve been impressing investors with great results.

“The industry has been somewhat disappointed,” said Ellmen.

The JSI has struggled to keep pace with conventional stock indices since the 2008 meltdown.

“I don’t put too much stock in short-term results,” said Jantzi. “The financial sector continues to struggle and we’re heavily weighted in the financial stocks.”

Holding considerable bank and insurance stocks means holding less in oil or gold mining — the resource sectors that have kept Canadian stock exchanges afloat the past two years.

“It’s a social index. It’s weighted differently, as you would expect. Over a shorter period of time you will see things struggle,” said Jantzi.

Even with disappointing recent results, Canadians continue to be interested in ESG factors in their investments. Social Investment Organization polling suggest 70 per cent of Canadian investors want more information about socially responsible investing, said Ellmen. With between two and three per cent of Canada’s pool of mutual fund money invested in SRI funds, there’s “huge room for growth,” he said.
TORONTO - For most interfaith dialogues vast theological differences and hundreds of years of mutual suspicion and prejudice are quite enough to deal with. The National Liaison Committee of Muslims and Christians wants more.

The official dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Canada decided to take on poverty, climate change, the Millennium Development Goals, faith formation of the next generation and politics at its annual dinner on the campus of the University of Toronto Jan. 11.
Canadian Jewish CongressAfter more than 30 years of official dialogue and 60 years of nurturing a genuine bond, Christians and Jews in Canada may be looking at a new relationship as the organization which has represented the Jewish side in the dialogue is either phased out of existence or significantly reorganized.

The Canadian Jewish Congress, the 91-year-old organization that represents the interests of most Canadian Jews, could cease to exist as early as June. That doesn’t mean Catholics won’t have a Jewish partner in the dialogue next year, but it may mean a more limited focus on Israel and related political issues, Catholic and Jewish dialogue partners told The Catholic Register.

Dr. Victor Goldbloom, who has participated in official Christian-Jewish dialogue in Canada since the first body was established in 1977 — and unofficially since he became a friend of Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger in Montreal in the 1950s — said there’s no indication a new Jewish organization would seek to replace Jewish representatives in Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Though Goldbloom fears a more narrow and partisan organization may replace the CJC, he doesn’t believe a more intense focus on lobbying and advocacy will change interfaith relationships. Goldbloom praised the Catholic side in the dialogue as “rock solid” despite the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 
Blair HitchensTORONTO - Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens duked it out to a draw in the biggest public debate on religion ever held in Toronto Nov. 26.

At the start of the evening, 22 per cent of the sold-out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall were in favour of Blair’s proposition that religion is a force for good in the world. Fifty-seven per cent thought religion was a force for ill and 21 per cent were undecided. Before the debate, fully 75 per cent of the live audience claimed they were open to changing their mind.
Green ChurchesTORONTO - More help is being offered to churches that want to do something about climate change.

The Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Ecumenism has launched the Green Church program to advise churches on ways to reduce their carbon footprint and lower heating bills. Joined with Toronto-based Greening Sacred Spaces, Green Church will offer certification to churches that achieve a high level of environmental awareness and act on it starting in April 2011.
Rich poorTORONTO - With elections looming next year both provincially and nationally, political parties are jockeying to position themselves on poverty.

At Queen’s Park politicians made time to talk to the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition Nov. 18 and trade blows over who really cares about the poor. In Ottawa, opposition politicians ganged up on the Conservatives Nov. 17 to issue a 300-page report calling for a national poverty reduction strategy to support the half-dozen provincial plans.
Iraqi refugees to CanadaTORONTO - Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney is holding the gate open for Iraqi refugees another two years, and asking churches again for help.

By extending the program aimed at Iraqi refugees, Canada could welcome another 8,000 Iraqi refugees in 2012 and 2013. They would join approximately 12,000 Iraqis who will have come to Canada between 2009 and 2011.

Addressing the churches and other faith-based sponsorship agreement holders, Kenney told a Toronto news conference, “I’m asking you to get engaged. Do more. Raise more funds. Sponsor more refugees.”
In an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada’s bishops are calling for the the federal government to develop a national anti-poverty strategy.

CCCB“We invite Canadians today to join us in calling on our federal government to emulate the efforts of many provincial governments and develop a national anti-poverty strategy,” said the Oct. 15 letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Today, most new wealth is going to those who already have more than enough. Inequality is increasing in Canada. The growing rich-poor gap is threatening the economic and political power of our middle class and our treasured participatory democracy.”