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Business and Reconciliation (92)

Lakehead University students demand school cut ties with RBC for funding fossil fuel projects

March 3, 2023
Mackenzie Barnett, centre, is a second-year PhD student at Lakehead University. She says she wants the school to take a stand against RBC for funding pipeline projects that encroach on traditional Indigenous territory. (Sarah Law/CBC)

CBC News: About two dozen Lakehead University students in Thunder Bay, Ont. protested outside the Royal Bank campus branch Thursday afternoon — but their concerns had nothing to do with banking fees. Instead, they were calling out the institution for being the country’s biggest funder of the fossil fuel industry, according to a global report called Banking on Climate Chaos 2021. 

The report, put together by seven climate advocacy organizations, tallies fossil fuel financing internationally. It said RBC ranked as the fifth largest funder of fossil fuels in the world, having lent $160 billion to the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2020.

Chris Armiento, a recent Lakehead graduate and public health researcher, helped organize Thursday’s demonstration. He said students have three key demands for RBC:

  • Defund the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, which cuts through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia
  • Divest from fossil fuel expansion immediately and phase out of fossil fuel financing by 2040
  • Respect the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people and stop all projects that do not have their consent

Eleven other universities across Canada are protesting in tandem with Lakehead, in collaboration with Banking for a Better Future, according to Armiento.

RBC has, informally, become Lakehead’s official bank, said PhD student Mackenzie Barnett, and was given a lounge on campus this year. However, students affiliated with Fossil Free Lakehead, the Lakehead University Sustainability Initiative, and the Lakehead Socialist Club are asking the school to cut ties with the university.

That would mean closing the on-campus branch and cancelling events and giveaways sponsored by the bank. “We really are asking Lakehead to now stand up and say as a huge customer of RBC, we don’t support this kind of pipeline construction, especially not on Indigenous land,” Barnett said, referring to the Coastal GasLink Pipeline.

A young woman with a baseball cap and glasses holds a sign that reads, "Respect climate justice and Indigenous rights."
About two dozen students at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., protest outside the on-campus RBC branch against the bank’s funding of the fossil fuel industry. (Sarah Law/CBC)

While RBC has not addressed Lakehead students’ concerns directly — which Armiento finds “insulting” — it did provide a statement to CBC News. The bank says it is committed to achieving net-zero lending by 2050 and is following interim emissions reduction targets to reach this goal.

It also strives to be “the leading financial institution in Canada to work with Indigenous people toward reconciliation, supporting economic development, community endeavours and educational opportunities,” RBC communications spokesperson Jeff Lauthier said in an emailed statement Thursday. “RBC respects the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination in accordance with international and domestic law,” wrote Lauthier.

However, Lakehead students like Armiento say the bank is guilty of green washing — something it’s been accused of in the past.

Driving change at Lakehead ‘may take time’

Fossil Free Lakehead is known for its success in getting Lakehead to commit to not holding any investments involving fossil fuel extraction by 2023. But the student group was formed in 2013 — and it took seven years to get the school to make that commitment, Armiento said.

He understands these things move slowly, so he isn’t surprised the university has not responded to their request to distance from RBC yet. That doesn’t mean he’s not hopeful, though. “[Lakehead has] committed to being climate leaders and I believe that’s a reputation they want to maintain and we want to see them maintain,” he said. “I think that they’ll co-operate with us and I think that they want what we want in this case.”

A group of students holding protest signs pose for a group photo. Many of them have their arms raised.
Students at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., are calling for the university to distance itself from RBC due to its funding of fossil fuels. (Sarah Law/CBC)

Brandon Walker, the school’s communications person, told CBC News in an email Thursday the school would not be commenting on the RBC protest at this time.

Lison Tardivet, an international student from France, said she was encouraged by Lakehead to open an RBC account upon her arrival. When she found out about its track record with fossil fuel investments, she was incredibly disheartened. “When you learn about that and you have some values, you’re just upset,” she said.

Joining the Lakehead protest was important to her because although she is not from Canada, CO2 emissions have a global impact. As she put it, “we are citizens from the same world.”

Lakehead students have also planned a trip to MP Patty Hajdu’s office Friday at noon as part of the weekly Fridays for Future climate strike held worldwide.


Sarah Law, Reporter

Sarah Law is a CBC News reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has also worked for newspapers and online publications elsewhere in the province. Have a story tip? You can reach her at