Hollywood celebrities, including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Edward Norton, and Joaquin Phoenix, are the latest among 300-plus actors and filmmakers to sign an open letter addressed to Cameron Bailey, the CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), urging him to terminate the festival’s longtime sponsorship deal with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in 2024. 

Published on September 6, filmmakers and activists Elza Kephart and Jose Luis Gutierrez wrote the letter.

It calls out RBC as a “world-leading enabler of fossil fuel extraction,” complicit in perpetuating violence against “Indigenous and BIPOC organizations and nations” through its “indiscriminate enabling of projects on their lands.” 

In 2022, RBC’s fossil fuel investments made it the biggest investor in climate destruction in the world. The bank approved more than 42 billion USD in fossil fuel development in 2022 alone — and 253.9 billion USD since 2016. 

In 2022, RBC sponsored the construction of Coastal Gaslink, a pipeline built across the sovereign land of the Wet’suwet’en nation. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have invaded homes and arrested Wet’suwet’en land defenders for demonstrating against the pipeline. Past coverage from Ricochet has drawn attention to parallels between tactics used by the RCMP in the Wet’suwet’en raid and war strategies David Petraeus, former US commander and CIA director, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The open letter writes that RBC has “denied [Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs] access to its AGM [annual general meeting] despite having the proper paperwork.” This has stifled the nation’s ability to protest RBC’s actions against its people and on its territory. 

“If we are to play a meaningful role in countering the climate crisis and stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, we cannot be blind to our industry’s role in shaping culture,” the letter reads.
“We cannot implicitly endorse RBC by allowing it to be the leading partner of Canadian film.”

Dissonance in TIFF’s social justice commitments

Chief Na’Moks, a Wet’su’wet’en hereditary chief, stated in an interview with Deadline that although “TIFF celebrates socially conscious films and elevates Indigenous filmmakers… it is incoherent [that the festival is] teaming up with Canada’s worst offenders on social issues.”

Films like Daniel Goldberg’s 2022 eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which premiered at TIFF, expose this dissonance. How can a film that champions the sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure as a necessary tool to fight climate change be funded by the largest investor in oil and gas in the world?

RBC has been a TIFF sponsor for 16 years. The bank donates an estimated $1 million yearly to the festival. This year, the money is mainly going to the Los Angeles Times Studio, which has partnered with TIFF to conduct interviews with directors and celebrity actors, to an afterparty venue called the RBC House, to an event for The Black Academy on September 10, and to the TIFF Every Story Accelerator program. 

But considering TIFF’s “100+ corporate sponsors and $45m in revenue,” the letter argues that “TIFF is well positioned to replace RBC’s estimated $1 million per year and find less harmful sponsors.” Activists argue that TIFF dropping its RBC sponsorship would represent an important step in discrediting the bank because of the festival’s influence and respect across Toronto.   

Responses to letter fall short

Judy Lung, vice-president of public relations and communications at TIFF, responded to the letter, stating that the festival is “committed to environmental sustainability and recognize[s] the importance of addressing climate change quickly and collaboratively.” Lung claims TIFF is “in active discussion with RBC” on the matter. 

But Lung failed to address RBC’s active role in violence against Indigenous peoples. This seems to undercut the land acknowledgment that Bailey delivered at the start of the festival. “We are grateful to be working on this land, and to support the work of screen storytellers from First Nation, Inuit, and Metis communities,” Bailey said on September 10. 

RBC responded too, claiming that “more action at a faster pace is needed to address [climate change]” and therefore the bank “welcome[s] the chance for dialogue [with TIFF].”

RBC also said it continues to “engage with Indigenous communities in collectively advancing reconciliation.” 

But Canada’s Competition Bureau has been investigating RBC for misleading its customers about its environmental practices since last fall, calling the banks’ commitments into serious question. 

Kephart, co-author of the letter, said in an interview with Deadline: “Filmmakers have spoken: we want oil [and] gas out of our industry. Now TIFF must decide between one particularly problematic sponsor and its community.” 

A growing chorus of RBC critics

The letter to TIFF is part of a nationwide movement to divest from and defund RBC. 

Activist groups at at least 15 university campuses across Canada, including the University of British Columbia and Western University, have launched campaigns to sever their universities’ ties with the bank.  Here at U of T, the student-led environmental movement known as Climate Justice UofT is pushing to remove RBC from the St. George campus. RBC has a branch and ATM in the Student Commons, and invests in several internship and scholarship programs in Rotman Commerce. Last year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union agreed to divest from RBC, which activists on campus hope will be a first step in removing the bank from campus altogether.