Tamara Vrooman on Economic Democracy
Tamara Vrooman, President and CEO of Vancity
Interviewed on September 25, 2014 by Monica Pohlmann.
Pohlmann: What keeps you up at night?
Vrooman: We’re becoming passive and run the risk of taking for granted the many things that have made Canada the tolerant, open, diverse, and welcoming society that we’re privileged to live in. Our greatness didn’t happen by accident. If we don’t work at it enough, we are at risk of diminishing and losing it. Then what kind of country will we leave for our children and our grandchildren?
We have a tradition of working together, talking about things, and being tolerant of different opinions. But we don’t see a lot of that anymore. Debates are becoming polarized and institutional rather than engaged and personal. There aren’t opportunities for individual voices to be cultivated and nourished. I worry that in our race to get things right, to be competitive, to be efficient, we’re making decisions that are not inclusive, are short term, and don’t benefit from the perspectives of many. It may feel like we are making a decision and getting on with things, but ultimately, we will regret not including the many voices, because we won’t have made the best decisions. In the end, then, this approach will slow us down and will cost us money, time, social capital, and natural capital. We need to go back to our tradition of engaging, consulting, debating, listening, and reflecting.
Pohlmann: What energizes you about Canada?
Vrooman: Relatively speaking, we’re a very diverse nation and society. That contributes tremendously to our strength, and our ability to see things differently and create a different future. In Vancouver, 75% of young people 17 and under have a parent who’s not from this country. That brings a tremendous sense of renewal, energy, tolerance, and creativity for what’s possible.
I’m energized by the fact that we’re starting to have a long overdue conversation of reconciliation with Indigenous and Aboriginal people. Non-Indigenous people are only beginning to understand what a gift it is to share a country with Indigenous people, who have lots to teach us. The wisdom of Indigenous people is a tremendous part of our history as well as our future. I’m just so impressed with how the reconciliation effort is being taken up across the country.
Pohlmann: What are important lessons from the past that you think we should be reflecting on as we move ahead?
Vrooman: It’s hard to judge the actions of others who operated in a different context, but in retrospect, when things have not gone well, it is because we failed to listen to, understand, and collaborate with others. The residential schools are an example. Aside from the obvious racism and personal suffering for which we’re responsible, we missed out on a whole generation of opportunity to learn and grow together. It was a huge loss of human capital, of human potential.
Pohlmann: What do you aspire to contribute through your work?
Vrooman: It’s hard to have political democracy and engagement if we don’t have economic democracy and engagement. The work I do is about making sure that people have access to information and support so they can make informed decisions. We’re also looking for ways to include more people in the economy and in the finance system—people who may not have access to bank accounts and things that you or I would take for granted. We’re increasingly hearing about income inequality. To think that economic democracy and income inequality are unrelated would be like saying that the right to vote and use of universal suffrage were unrelated. Of course they’re related.