The Royal Bank of Canada recently joined more than 24 major financial institutions that will not fund resource development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The bank's new policy says that because of the refuge's "ecological and social significance and vulnerability," RBC will not directly finance any project or transaction for exploration or development in the Arctic refuge.
"Companies, governments, organizations are starting to take notice and recognize that any development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just simply bad business," said Gwich'in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Smith.
"We urge other Canadian chartered banks to make the moral choice and stand with us and our allies in this fight."
The Porcupine caribou herd calves in the coastal plain of Alaska, but the majority of the harvest takes place in Canada.
Gwich'in in the N.W.T., Vuntut Gwitchin and Inuvialuit have hunted the herd for generations and account for 85 per cent of the herd's harvest, states a news release from the Gwich'in leaders last Friday.
In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump opened 1.5-million acres of Alaska's Coastal Plain to oil and gas leasing. The legislation required the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to outline options for development in ANWR, but the bureau did not hold meetings with herd users from Gwich'in communities on the Canadian side of the border.
Last year, the Vuntut Gwitchin Government and Gwich'in Tribal Council started targeting major Canadian banks including the BMO, CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank and TD.
The leaders explained that there are "immense human, cultural and environmental impacts and financial risks associated with oil and gas exploration or development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," the release says.
Smith says RBC's new policy is the culmination of decades of work to "raise the profile" of the refuge outside of Northeastern Alaska.
In his late teens and early 20s, Smith toured with the Porcupine Caribou Management board in 1995 and 2001, lobbying in the eastern United States districts and house of representatives, as well as U.S. swing states.
"Our job was to lobby some of those districts and states to ensure that their elected representatives were voting in favour of the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska," he said.
At that time, the idea of a major bank refusing to fund development felt improbable, said Smith.
"In the early days of this fight it felt like we were not only opposing the oil industry, but corporations more broadly. To have other private financial institutions weigh in and support our cause is certainly a huge step forward from where we were 20 years ago."
Threats to the refuge are in constant flux depending on whether Republicans or Democrats hold power, said Smith. For example, in the early 2000s, George W. Bush wanted to pull oil out of the refuge. Barack Obama sought out protections for it.
"With another Republican President Donald Trump, we are in this cycle again where we have a Republican administration looking to open the area for development, requiring a concerted action to protect the area from any sort of oil and gas development," said Smith.
Chartered banks in Canada and financial institutions in the United States are "taking notice and seeing that there is liability from having any affiliation to any companies looking to develop what we consider a very sacred area," said Smith.
RBC is the first Canadian chartered bank to do so, joining banks like Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo.
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm lauded the bank's move and said RBC has "become a leader for corporate institutions as the modern world begins its return journey to an environmental consciousness that Indigenous peoples have never forgotten."
Tizya-Tramm said RBC's policy decision comes as the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination investigates development in ANWR as a human rights violation.
By refusing to fund development, RBC aligns itself with the Gwich'in Nation, the N.W.T., Yukon and federal governments, Inuvialuit Game Council and Na-Cho Nyäk Dün and Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nations, the release states.
Each of the organizations are parties to the Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement, which is committed to conserving the Porcupine caribou herd and habitat.