Economic Reconciliation or Economic Retaliation?

Story by Real Peoples Media

What’s behind the Crown’s unilateral takeover of Bridging Finance, the largest Indigenous-led investment management firm in Canada? 

TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY – David Sharpe is a Tyendinaga Mohawk who’s been in the mainstream media quite a lot recently. Sharpe, who lives on the Territory, was the head of Bridging Finance and is quite likely the only Indigenous CEO and Ultimate Designated Person of an investment management firm in Canada. His firm, with assets under management exceeding $2 billion, was privately owned and specialized in making loans of between $3-50 million to small and medium businesses that had difficulties in accessing financing. 

A major part of the business was its Indigenous Impact Fund, which invested over $500 million in First Nations and $100 million in Inuit businesses. These loans had a tremendous impact on the Indigenous economy, provided a profitable net return to investors, and were offered directly to First Nations outside of the control of the economic Apartheid of Canada’s Indian Act system. 

The achievements of Bridging’s Indigenous Impact Fund in supporting Indigenous economic sovereignty were remarkable. In Nunavut, Bridging Finance provided capital to Hunters and Trappers Organizations to purchase two arctic fishing vessels (one a former icebreaker) to grow a 100% Inuit-owned local fishery. In Akwesasne, they helped to finance a small tobacco production operation. In Elsipogtog they financed a large on-reserve grocery store and pharmacy that provides 50+ jobs and food security for the community. In Membertou, they loaned the First Nation $6.8 million to gain a 12.5% stake in a container shipping terminal in Sydney Harbour. In providing funding to the Alberta to Alaska Railway they planned a multibillion operation that would not only provide an alternative to the Liberal’s TransCanada pipeline but that would be owned by the First Nations along its path and economically unite northern Indigenous communities in Alaska and Northwest Canada.

The economic plans that Sharpe financed didn’t require First Nations to jump through any of Canada’s hurdles to get Indian Affairs approval for the projects. When Sharpe and his team met in Elsipogtog to finance the large grocery store and pharmacy, they promised they would be back with $15 million in a week’s time to fulfill the community’s long-standing dream. Their counterparts laughed and said, “yeah right, we’ve heard that before.” But the next week, Sharpe was back with the $15 million, and the project was rapidly completed. At the ribbon-cutting for the grand opening of the project, the Indian Affairs bureaucrats appeared befuddled and upset when they realized that a project that they had stalled and starved of funds could be completed without them. 

Retaliation or reconciliation?

On April 30th, 2021, Sharpe was stunned to be informed that the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC), a Crown Corporation filled with political appointees – some of them holding longstanding ties to the Federal Liberal Party – had taken complete control over his business through an ex-parte court hearing. An ex-parte hearing is one that takes place without the knowledge or presence of the other party. Sharpe and Bridging Finance were not given any opportunity to respond to the allegations or to provide any evidence to object to the court order. 

PricewaterhouseCoopers is now in full control of Bridging Finance as the receiver, and Sharpe and the other owners have had their company stolen without a chance to be heard – even down to their laptops and personal effects left in the office.

So what is Bridging Finance’s “crimes” that would warrant such an unprecedented reaction from the Crown Corporation overseeing Ontario’s world of finance? After Sharpe reported a fraud carried out by a business partner to the OSC in February of 2020, the OSC got the opportunity to investigate Bridging Finance. Even though the Bridging Finance shareholders made restitution to the tune of over $60 million to ensure no investor losses, the OSC spent millions of dollars on an eight-person investigation team to examine every detail of the company for over a year. Through a combination of compelled evidence and forensic accounting, OSC prejudged certain transactions as being detrimental to the company without giving Sharpe the opportunity to rebut their allegations in a court of law.

There is no evidence of any missing investor money in the Bridging Finance case, but rather an issue of a potential conflict of interest and lack of disclosure that could have been easily handled without the OSC taking over and totally destroying the company. Sharpe has cooperated with the OSC and answered all of their queries under oath. 

Such irresponsible behaviour by a Crown Corporation towards a Mohawk doing business in his traditional territory raises some very serious questions about the state of Mohawk people’s treaty relationship with the Crown. Does the OSC not wish to uphold the treaty principles of mutually beneficial peace and friendship agreements that allowed the Crown onto our lands in the first place? How is the OSC honouring the Two Row Wampum and the ideals of peace, friendship and respect in its relationship to a Mohawk CEO of an investment management firm? Why is the Crown seeking a mandate of total destruction for a firm based on advancing Indigenous economic potential and overcoming the deadly legacy of Canadian colonialism? 

No harm, no foul

Another question worth exploring concerns exactly who was harmed in this whole process. Bridging Finance received a clean audit from KPMG for the period ending December 31, 2020. The loans were all performing, and according to financial reports, Bridging Finance has not lost one dollar on Indigenous loans since they began making loans in 2015.

Through the process of receivership, and the extensive publishing of his compelled testimony in violation of Sections 16, 17 and 18 of the Ontario Securities Act and his Constitutional rights, Sharpe has had his reputation smeared and his company dismembered. The very next day after the surprise ex parte court hearing, The Globe and Mail received leaks of all materials from the OSC and PriceWaterhouseCoopers and published them. 

Sharpe’s legal team is now seeking a declaration that the OCS violated sections 16 and 17 of the Act and engaged in abuse of process. Sharpe’s legal efforts are seeking to “quash the OSC’s investigation order, throw out certain evidence that was obtained in his compelled interviews with enforcement staff and remove or seal documents that were posted online detailing his testimony.” His aim is to have his company removed from receivership or to have it sold so that investors are not hurt by the government’s efforts to harm Indigenous economic revitalization. 

By assisting those with the means to invest in Indigenous communities and businesses, Sharpe became a conduit for the investment community to engage in what he termed an effort of “economic reconciliation” by private businesses that can help to overcome the horrific outcomes of state-sponsored racism and colonialism in Canada. In financial boardrooms, Sharpe encouraged Canada’s business community to take responsibility for enacting recommendation #92 of the Truth and Reconciliation commission by upholding UNDRIP principles, employing Indigenous people in mutually beneficial relationships, and teaching the corporate sector respect for  Indigenous ways of being. 

Sharpe’s efforts inspired the film Economic Reconciliation written by Indigenous writer and publisher Maurice Switzer and produced by the Gemini-nominated filmmaker Andrée Cazabon. In the film, Sharpe talks about his experience as a man who while walking in both worlds, felt compelled to hide his identity as an Indigenous person for many years. “I felt if I came out and said who I am, that I would be excluded from power and opportunity,” he reveals in the film. 

Ironically, since the Crown Corporation took over his company, Sharpe has been completely edited out of the film that he had inspired the creation of. This unannounced erasure of Sharpe, like the shuttering of his company, has come without any criminal or Securities Act charges placed against him, and without him having any opportunity to defend his company’s actions in a court of law. It is exactly the kind of underhanded exclusion from power and opportunity that he feared would happen if he spoke up.

In a September 2020 email sent to Jeff Kehoe, the Crown’s representative leading the investigation and receivership of Bridging Finance, Sharpe detailed his experiences with racism in the world of high finance. Sharpe described his experiences as a Status Indian working in finance and his efforts to combat racism as a founding board member of the Black North Initiative, former chair of the First Nations University of Canada, Director of Historica Canada, Indigenous Ambassador for the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Vice-Chair of Futurpreneur Canada and Chair of Diversity and Inclusion. Sharpe discussed the way systemic and institutional racism forces many Indigenous and Black people out of their chosen workplaces and careers, and the politics of erasure and privilege that underpin such efforts.

Jeff Kehoe, the head of enforcement of the Ontario Securities Commission is responsible for the investigation and receivership of Bridging Finance. Photo Credit: Jeff Kehoe Twitter.

Kehoe, himself a long-standing Liberal Party operative and the former Ontario campaign chair of Michael Ignatieff’s failed leadership bid for the party, acknowledged receipt of the email and promised to respond to its substance. He never did, unless one considers the ex parte hearing, the leaking of Sharpe’s confidential compelled testimony, and the destruction of Bridging Finance as his response. 

Conclusion 

Here at Real People’s Media, we don’t claim to be experts in the Canadian financial system and the intricacies of its rules and regulations. But we do pay close attention to matters affecting the Indigenous economy and the efforts that our people make in trying to break out of Canada’s Economic Apartheid.

As always, the question that is most important when discussing any matter of justice or restitution, is who was harmed? In the case of Bridging Finance, it seems that the only real harm that was done was through Canada’s economic oppression of Indigenous people.

The destruction of a multi-billion dollar Indigenous company in an ex-parte hearing without even the option to mount a defence is a trampling not only of Mr. Sharpe’s constitutionally protected rights but also of the broader rights of all Indigenous peoples to develop their own economies and institutions free from colonial domination. Such an act sets a chilling precedent and sends a clear message to the financial world: if you invest in the Indigenous economy outside of the Indian Act and the Liberal Party’s control, you risk being destroyed and having your reputation ruined without being given any chance to defend yourself.

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