Corporate unaccountability: the new BC Business Corporations Act

Once again the Campbell government is amending legislation to benefit corporations and hinder the public’s right to know important information. Their latest reform in favour of corporations, buried in the new Business Corporations Act, blocks public access to the identity of corporate shareholders.

The new Business Corporations Act came into effect last spring, but only recently have some journalists noticed one unexpected change. Previously, a reporter or other researcher could obtain a list of the shareholders of a company. This provision enabled the public to know, for example, whether a politician has a stake in a company that might benefit from public decisions.

Access to lists of shareholders also enables activists to find major shareholders, people who might be sympathetic to their cause, or who might in some way be vulnerable to pressure. In BC, where the rapid consolidation of logging, mining and fossil fuel companies is giving fewer and fewer companies control over BC public lands, it is particularly important to know who owns the tenure rights.

However, with no public consultation or notice, the government has done away with the old right of access. The effect is to withdraw reporters’ access to shareholder lists for researching stories, and may also make it more difficult for activists to identify shareholders.

In the new Act. Section 47 requires anyone seeking access to the records of shareholders to fill out an affidavit and, in the case of private companies, pay a fee. The Act prohibits that person from using that information for any purpose but influencing the voting of shareholders, buying or selling shares, promoting an amalgamation, or calling certain company meetings.

Reporting on the shadow figures behind a new and unknown energy company, for example, would be a violation of the affidavit and the Act. Violators can be fined up to $5,000 (for organisations) or $2,000 (for individuals).

As Arthur Caldicott points out in his commentary on a news article on this topic, this is bad news for the public, especially in light of the shell companies that have been set up in BC to seek drilling rights and other resource interests. These companies are often fronts for people who don’t want their names associated with the projects-or, for the shady people who are behind some of these projects, who don’t want the projects associated with their names.

The new Act is a hindrance for activists who want to influence shareholders, but not an outright ban on their research. They’ll have to fill out an affidavit now, to obtain a company’s list of shareholders, whether it’s a publicly traded company or a private one, but the nature of the financial pressure work Dogwood Initiative is doing does not necessarily fall outside the limitations in Section 47. The goal, after all, is to convince the shareholders to influence corporate policy. They do so by voting, so financial pressure work with shareholders can be said to be an attempt to influence shareholders’ votes.

Still, a narrow interpretation of Section 47 might not allow activist research-after all, the immediate purpose of the request for shareholders’ names is to research the backgrounds of those shareholders, to find leverage. And, more conceptually, financial pressure relies on the availability of information about a company’s owners, directors, and creditors.

This quiet new change to corporate law in BC is worrisome, since it cuts back on public access to information about the companies that continue to gain control of our natural resources.

We’ll have to hope that, as recent signals suggest, the Act will be changed.

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