Monday, April 2, 2012

Gregory McDade - “activist board” makes Vancity unique

Gregory McDade is an artist in the courtroom. Many times, he has lifted me off my feet as he represented Alexandra Morton at the Cohen Commission, instilling life through his cross-examinations in what were otherwise rather tedious proceedings. For the causes that he chooses to defend (most definitely of the underdog type) and for the manner in which he chooses to defend them (picture this: a lawyer who actually speaks his mind), that man clearly stands out of the ordinary.

So when I heard that Greg McDade was running for board member with Vancity, I was intrigued. I wanted to find out more about his personal motivations. I requested an interview which he kindly accepted. We talked about Vancity and what makes it a unique institution (answer: its board of activists), about his past tenure as a board member there, as well as his personal and professional aspirations, both in this particular campaign and in general.

My exchange with Greg McDade increased my personal admiration for him. Without hesitation I endorse his candidacy and, being a Vancity member myself (one person one vote is the rule, McDade reminded me), I shall vote for him. Below are some key moments of our interview. I invite any of you who bank at Vancity to read this and make your own mind about the man's character, and then find the time in your busy day to vote. It is critically important that we elect progressive activists of McDade's caliber to the board of Vancity.


Q: You served as a board member for Vancity in the past. Tell us about that experience, and how you became involved in the first place.

Greg McDade: I was on the board for 8 years from 1996 to 2004. I served 3 terms in total. How I got involved requires  a bit of background. Vancity is 65 years old. For the first 30 years, it ran as a pretty standard credit union, until the eighties when a group which was NDP-oriented with strong links to the environmental and social justice movements ran election after election and gradually got people elected. Eventually, all nine of the members came from the same background and worked as a unit, and they began to change Vancity into what it is. I was from the next generation, and I came about 12 years later when they were no longer eligible. Back then, I was heading the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, and so I was recruited to bring an environmental dimension into the mix.

We pushed the agenda in terms of its cooperative values, for more democracy, for donating more to groups. When I was chair, we set up the Vancity Award, which gives a one million dollar grant every year for one good cause. And we got Vancity to give away 30% of its profit to causes, which is extraordinary and unheard of – I mean, a regular financial institution is pretty happy if it only gives out 1%! Now Vancity is considered a global leader in the cooperative movement. Vancity also started Ethical Funds, the very first mutual fund that said that you should only invest in ethical companies. Vancity has initiated many of those initiatives which over the years have become accepted as standard practice. It was the first organization for example which was prepared to give mortgages east of Main street, or credit cards to women.

Q: What makes a credit union like Vancity different from a bank, or from other credit unions for that matter?

Greg McDade: Corporations have shareholders. And the key to having shareholders is growth. The only mandate  their managers is profit, and their only obligation is return on investment. We are beginning to see now in the world how this state of things causes evil – when we have 700 corporations controlling 80% of the world. And what do we do one generation from now, when those corporations are going to continue to eat each other up? Cooperatives are different. In a sense, Vancity also has shareholders: every member is a shareholder. But it is a different type of share, because it is not one that you can sell for more than you bought it. And it is one member one vote, as opposed to the model where the richer you are, the more control you have. That makes a significant difference when you are a manager. The measurement is not profit anymore, it is member satisfaction.

Q: However Vancity lives in a global financial environment, granted a highly toxic one, but one inside which Vancity must live and be competitive. How does this reality impact Vancity's core values? 

Greg McDade: I'll answer with an example. In the late nineties when I was chair, the idea of Internet banking was really taking off. Eventually, they said, it would not matter where banks were located, all banking would be global. There was a huge pressure to get rid of branches, because they were seen as a drag on earnings. You had to get rid of all those bricks and mortar as they called them. The same thing was going to happen at Vancity, but the board rebelled. We said no, our objective is not to become international, we have members and our members are in Vancouver, we actually need to open more branches. So at the time when everyone was closing branches, we were opening them! The world has changed since then, and big banks heave realized that this strategy of closing branches doesn't work, that customer loyalty happens at the local branch.

Another example. In the early 2000s there was a huge trend in financial markets towards derivatives, where mortgages were bundled up. For a year of two at Vancity, we went though that phase, and then the board said no, we are not going to buy bundled mortgages from New York state or wherever they come from. We are here to serve our members in Vancouver, our mortgages are fine thank you very much, we want to maintain control over them. And of course, the financial collapse came out of those derivatives. And it is not just Vancity that did well during those times: even as banks collapsed by the hundreds in 2008, no credit unions collapsed. It turns out that credit unions are much more financially secure than banks. When we feel that corporations are taking over the world as a cancer, which is how I feel, I think that credit unions and cooperatives are the answer. Vancity is a mission-based organization, it's almost like a nonprofit albeit one that makes a profit. And that comes from having a board which is mission-based. It's more than just good people from the community. It's an activist-based board. And it's important to maintain that.

Q: I have seen you in action at the Cohen Commission [the commission which inquired in the collapse of the 2009 Fraser sockeye] and I think it's fair to call you an activist lawyer. You've ben involved in some of the most important legal battles in this province over your career, such as Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s and more recently by representing Alexandra Morton in her battle against fish farms. How did that happen? Most of your colleagues who graduated with you now work for large corporations, or for the government. How did McDade-the-apple end up falling so far away from the corporate tree, and how does one become an activist lawyer?

Greg McDade: Well, some people go to law school with a different mindset than just entering a respectable profession and making money, but because they actually want to change the world...

Q: So you had that mindset from the beginning?

Greg McDade: I was an environmentalist first and I went to law school because it occurred to me that it was the only way to change the world. I didn't actually want to be a lawyer. Eventually I became frustrated as an environmentalist in Alberta where I grew up. I realized that you either stack dynamite in your basement or you learn how to sue people. And one of the things that surprised me when I went to law school in the seventies was how many other people were there for the same reasons. I was one of the first environmental lawyers, but there were an awful lot that were there for labor causes or social justice. What happens after that, and one of the reasons so many end up working for corporations, is that there just is no money in those areas. I always tell students that there are maybe 20 positions for environmental lawyers in Canada. But that's why I started the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, because nobody wants to pay for environmental law since it's a common property. And so there is no financial interest in protecting nature, but there is financial interest in destroying it. So the only way to make that work was to raise funds from the public – and it worked.

Q: Do you ever work for the other side – corporations – as a lawyer?

Greg McDade: Never. I've not had a single corporate client for many years. My current practice is largely aboriginal based. So it's more of a social justice cause than an environmental one. I believe we have mistreated the First Nations. They have a right to their fair share and I believe we have to empower them. So I work very hard to make sure that they get their fair share of any resource development that takes place in their territory. The bands I work for are very environmentally focused. But where mining and forestry is approved by government, our objective is to get the First Nations their fair share, so that they can build an economy. And so sometimes the aboriginal bands I work for set up joint ventures with the corporations that come in, as opposed to having those corporations take 100% of all the resource. But we spend a good portion of the time suing those corporations to keep them out.

Q: Do you get some push-back from environmentalists because of that?

Greg McDade: Yes, occasionally.

Q: What do you tell them?

Greg McDade: I say that First Nations are better at protecting their environment than the companies that were doing it before. I defend environmentalists all the time because I think they are essential as a means of pressure, but you also have to have an economy. Alexandra Morton is a good example of such environmentalists who understand the importance of the economy and work hand in hand with First Nations. Alex and I have the same approach on this: you get rid of the bad industries and you keep the good ones.