Katie Wheatley

Manager, Responsible Investment Education and Advisory at SHARE (Shareholder Association for Research and Education)

Katherine (Katie) Wheatley joined SHARE in 2019, overseeing the Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative (RRII). Katie currently manages education and advisory services, where she prepares and delivers educational curriculum on responsible investment to asset owners, and supports owners in embedding responsible investment approaches in investment governance.

Prior to joining SHARE, Katie worked in intergovernmental affairs with various First Nations to protect their Aboriginal rights and title and enhance environmental conservation through government relations, negotiation with industry, and international advocacy. She has previously worked to advance social development and reconciliation through conducting research and furthering grassroots community initiatives at several non-profit organizations, a private family foundation, and a municipal government in Eastern Canada.

Work and impact

Our central mission at SHARE is to ensure that the investments that the asset owners that we work with, from institutions across Canada and beyond, are deployed in ways that mirror their values and their visions for the future of our shared economy. A big part of that involves bringing in visions around sustainability and having a net positive impact on the world and the systems that our capital markets rely upon. A lot of the work at SHARE really centers upon widening the discussion that is being had around decision-making tables among investors. This includes moving it from a strictly financial returns-based lens to looking at the many ecosystems and human systems that underpin and support financial outcomes. It’s about widening the lens on investing to look at how we make this sustainable – not just financially for ourselves in terms of returns over time, but also for the communities and systems that are impacted by the companies and funds that we invest in. We think of it more holistically and recognize that there is a huge amount of interplay between the financial systems that we operate in and the environmental and the social realms that underpin them.

I started a new role in the fall, building out more of our educational support and advisory services, seeing that there’s really a growing need in that area. I’d actually joined SHARE to lead an initiative on reconciliation and responsible investment. I joined SHARE in 2019 to help mobilize Indigenous and non-Indigenous investors to build capital markets that better integrate and align with Indigenous values, rights, and ways of knowing. Prior to that, I had worked in rights and title directly for various Indigenous nations, like the Musqueam Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation. I was supporting decision-makers directly to negotiate with industry and with the government to ensure the protection of their rights and title as well as to enhance environmental conservation.

I was drawn into this line of work at SHARE for the Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative. I realized working directly for Indigenous governments – through Impact Benefit Agreements and large settlement claims that were being settled with both industry actors as well as with government entities – that they were amassing larger and larger sums of financial assets. But there wasn’t always space and support to ensure that the way that they were investing was really mirroring their values and their broader aspirations for their own communities. That was really what sparked the interest in the work that was ongoing at SHARE, at the Initiative in partnership with the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA). It is interesting and unique project that really drew me in and kind of allowed me to bounce off of the networks and the experience that I’d had working directly in intergovernmental affairs for various First Nations. 

I do have a winding path – it’s funny to draw the lines back towards where I have landed. I had done my undergrad at McGill in international development studies and anthropology. I looked at anthropology as a set of skills and tools that were really helpful and holistic in tackling social complex problems. I always was interested in applying anthropological methods to governance contexts to looking at how decision-making was being made around the use of resources and the effects on communities. 

Afterwards, I pursued a masters looking at governance in the oil sands and how Indigenous communities were working with government and industry in different ways, as well as doing international advocacy and lobbying, to seek and secure greater self-determination over their traditional land bases. 

I jumped from growing up in Montreal and thinking about international development to really realizing there’s so much in Canada domestically that we are not paying attention to. I’m not sure why we were so focused abroad, when there are so many inequities here at home. 

That prompted me to pursue my masters in Saskatoon and as I was wrapping up my master’s – over the course of doing the fieldwork based out of Fort McMurray with the Mikisew Cree First Nation – I had been supporting them in a reciprocal exchange. They supported me in connecting with community members and decision-makers to speak about my own research focus, and at the same time I was helping them in government relations. That led to longer term collaboration after wrapping up my fieldwork. When I left the prairies, I moved to the lower mainland in BC with my partner and it was very natural to jump into supporting the local nation, which was Musqueam. It kind of kept snowballing from there, having ultimately joined SHARE, but I recognize it’s a very non-traditional path into the Financial Services realm.

It’s an exciting time to be working in this area because there has never been more interest and there’s never been more growth. The number of ESG or responsible investment products and offerings and services has just grown exponentially in the last decade or so. It’s a very interesting time to be in this space. But it also presents challenges because there is a lot to sift through that is not actually impactful, that is greenwashing or impact washing that sounds really good but doesn’t mean much in practice, or that is really focused on disclosures unmoored from action or follow-up, or that sounds good versus what is doing good. 

It’s interesting to see more and more people really recognizing that ESG is financially material. And it’s fantastic to be a part of those conversations of how to actually bring those visions and those ideas and budding commitments to life in practice.

It’s very interesting to support investment decision-makers as they’re grappling with different pathways towards responsible investment, which are often perceived as alternatives rather than complementary solutions. You’d mentioned working alongside an organization as they were thinking through divestment. We hear a lot of investors think of divestment as a binary, which is not really how we see it. It’s not divestment versus engagement, it can really be a combination of both – participating in one does not preclude considering the other. I suppose one misconception embodied in that is the idea that there is one way to do this right. There are a wide range of levers available to asset owners keen on building a more sustainable and inclusive economy.

Another thing that I spoke to briefly already is the idea that if it has a sustainability or an ESG label on it, that it is necessarily doing good.There’s a lot that we have to work through together to figure out what will actually have a positive long-term impact, and to ensure transparency and accountability in ESG. Education is needed for all of us to make sure that we can decipher the new sustainability solutions being put on the market, versus defining and pursuing what will actually bring positive change. 

Life and aspirations

I would say that it varies quite seasonally. In my current role, I have a heavy role in building up to an Investor Summit that SHARE holds on an annual basis. It’s our flagship event, and it’s in February or March of every year. As a student, you’re more than welcome to join for free – it is March first through fourth held virtually this year. Right now, the Summit is the major draw on my time and attention. On an average day, I’m currently doing a lot of work in curriculum development and session design for things like educational workshops and network caucuses for investment decision-makers. 

One piece on the go right now is a pension trustee bootcamp for potential trustees, or folks that are new in the role for pension funds. We are giving them an overview of “What are their fiduciary duties?”, “What are the basics of investment that they need to have in mind?”, “What’s the role of an actuary and what are those pension funding needs that they need to be aware of?,” and “What is responsible investment and how does that fit into this?”. 

The Summit is our key event every year – it is the moment we bring together asset owners from across the different networks that we work with. So at this point, day-to-day there’s a huge amount of liaising to do to make sure that we’re bringing together the right folks from different investment organizations into things like network caucuses. I am thinking through, for example, among Canadian foundations: “Where do we see opportunities for foundations to be using their philanthropic capital to further align it with their mission?”, and “How can they make sure that what they’re doing on the granting side and their overarching priorities are mirrored in how they are stewarding their financial assets?”

Every day is a bit different. It’s often a mix of working groups and meetings and internal check-ins with colleagues, as well as a lot of putting my head down and trying to think about curriculum development and how to curate conversations effectively. We want to empower investors to have conversations around pressing matters they are considering, like systemic risk, inequality, and decarbonization.

So it’s a busy season, but my workplace is generous in encouraging us to take time away after intense work periods like this. This line of work is a marathon rather than a sprint, so there’s a lot of emphasis on balance and taking care of our whole selves rather than keeping your nose to the grindstone indefinitely.

Responsible investment and the sustainable finance realm is evolving so quickly. It constantly feels like there is a new set of parameters and a new set of metrics around, say, climate-related disclosures. And so building in time to learn, to keep skilling up, and to stay on top of related news and current events is a constant priority that I have in mind. We’re always thinking through how to carve out enough space so that you’re not just doing, you’re also thinking about what comes next. 

I would also say that we’re in a unique position in bringing together a group of asset owners, cultivating those networks of investors that may face common challenges or hurdles to overcome. It’s a priority to make sure that individuals like union-nominated pension trustees that sit on pension funds’ boards or community members that oversee Indigenous trusts feel supported in their role and that they recognise that ultimately, they are at the top of the value chain in the investment sphere in being the asset owners, and that they have such an important perspective to bring on behalf of their beneficiaries. That’s a challenge that we keep in mind as well as wanting to really cultivate strong and responsive investor networks, because we’re all stronger together and we see that there are opportunities for them to learn from each other as well. It’s not just us going out to provide one-to-many or one-to-one services; we focus on the challenging, intentional work of cultivating spaces in an ongoing way that enables peer-to-peer learning and mutual support.

I try not to think more than five years ahead because it feels like there is constantly so much flux and there are so many opportunities on the horizon – I try to focus on things as they arise. I am always grateful to be in a place where I am continually learning and that’s been something that is exceptional about SHARE. I never feel as though “Oh, I know it all, I’m done now” – and everyone says the same thing at our organization. We’re constantly learning from each other and I feel really grateful to be among such a brilliant group.

Looking towards the future, I would say a priority for me is really just to make sure that I’m doing work that empowers others and that builds collective momentum for sustainability. I think back and I started to get into the environmental movement when I was around 15 in high school. I was thinking about how we didn’t have compost, or even plastic recycling at that point. But all around us the municipality was giving the neighborhoods all of these things. We were wondering “Why can’t they just build this into their contract?” and so we ended up rallying down into the tiny little municipality hall in Montreal West where I was going to high school, calling the local media and alerting them to our march. After months of asking nicely, alerting the municipality prompted the change to get plastic recycling for the school overnight, and so the rally turned into a celebration walk. 

That really sparked that interest in mobilizing collectively for sustainability. It started off environmentally focused for me and then I think moving through school, I started to realize it’s never just about the environment, it’s about the people who live in it and their interactions with natural spaces and systems. Which spurred me, after looking at energy policymaking in Quebec and then Alberta, to focus on Indigenous rights as a grounding force and a priority for me.

Those early experiences thinking about sustainability and conservation spurred me to veer my path towards looking for work that was rewarding and community focused. Before cégep, I participated in Katimavik, a national volunteer program started 45 years ago for youth to explore different communities across Canada, to immerse them in different lived realities with almost a dozen kids their age living in a different place where your goal was to connect with others, give back to the local community full time through volunteer placements, and learn about yourself and our identities as Canadians along the way. That took me to Ontario and New Brunswick. Although I was only 17 at the time, that was the first professional moment that made me realize I can be doing good work that is focused on sustainability and collective well being full time. I remember the joy of waking up everyday and knowing that I was focused on giving to the world around me – it was incredibly rewarding. I recall realizing that that would be my grounding force. Looking forward, as long as I feel as though I continue to contribute to work that keeps pushing the greater good forward, that I will be really head and heart in it – as I was back then.

Advice for the next generations

I would say that the most important skill for my position – I think they’re largely soft skills – is about really listening and appreciating people’s positionality and recognising the barriers they face in their own work as, say, trustees or investment committee members. It’s focused a lot on empowerment – how I can support this person in their role and help them to really enact the vision that the organization has for the future of the economy? Secondly, I would say that being able to communicate effectively, and to articulate yourself well, is also a really important thing. You have to be able to make the case for whatever it is that you’re advocating for. Third, being agile and learning on the go is also important. It’s key to realize that learning doesn’t stop at the end of an educational experience or university degree. Especially in this line of work because it’s changing so quickly, and so constantly. Being a lifelong learner is a really important mindset to cultivate over time.

At SHARE, nearly everyone has a slightly different educational background. It plays to our benefit that we have some folks with law degrees, some folks that focused on international finance, and we have other folks like me that are coming from the social sciences. I think, honestly as much as in school it feels as though your degree is the most important thing, that a major benefit really comes from professional experiences that you can secure along the way as well. I really feel summer internships and jobs that I had shorter term placements were equally valuable to what I learned in school, if not more because that was what left me feeling more equipped. I know I can contribute in a workplace and gave me first experiences in things like municipal government and grassroots organizations. I worked in a foundation one summer during my undergrad, as well. All of those experiences really contributed to helping to build my understanding of what a successful professional life could look like and also what types of spaces I wanted to be in versus ones I was a bit less keen on.

I don’t really think I would’ve done anything differently. I feel lucky to have a winding path towards where I am today. I’m still young but I’m fortunate to have lived and worked in communities across six different provinces and two countries. I think that all of that has really informed my perspective today on what sustainability is, how communities can approach it very differently, and why it makes sense that not everyone sees everything in the same way. I think that the professional trajectory that I’ve had over the years has really kind of informed how I look at things today. I’m really grateful for it, rather than feeling like I took a wrong turn anywhere. My advice for youth would be to seize new opportunities as they come, even if they don’t feel directly related to where you ultimately see yourself in the workforce. They still contribute to your development and help shape who you are and how you work in and with community.