Tamara Vrooman is banking on change

Canada Infrastructure Bank’s new chair takes the long view on shaping the nation’s post-pandemic future

Tamara Vrooman by Jori Bolton
Illustration by Jori Bolton

As a girl growing up in Victoria, B.C., Tamara Vrooman did not set her sights on landing one of the most senior jobs in Canadian banking. Pursuing her own interests, she played string bass in high school and studied history at the University of Victoria.

It was only while defending her master’s thesis on the B.C. government’s policy of forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded” in the early 20th century that she realized her fascination with the government’s role in shaping the lives of Canadians. She also realized that, rather than study the intersection of private and public interests, she would prefer “to go to where the decisions are made,” as she told The Globe and Mail in a 2009 interview.

That’s where she now is, as chair of the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), a position she assumed in January of this year. She replaces Michael Sabia, now deputy minister of finance, in a role that will involve a lot of decision-making – and at a crucial time, as Canada digs itself out of its deepest economic hole since the Great Depression.

The CIB, established in 2017 by the Trudeau government as an instrument to marry public with private investment in Canada’s revenue-generating infrastructure, has struggled to find its feet. From the outset, the bank attracted widespread criticism as a vehicle for Liberal priorities, rather than an arm’s-length Crown corporation, that was built on an overly complicated financing strategy. After three years – and three changes in leadership – the bank had committed only $4 billion of its $35-billion allocation, and both the Conservative and New Democratic Parties had vowed to dismantle it if they came to power.

But if anyone is game for a challenge, it would be Vrooman. Having been turned down for a junior job in B.C.’s Finance Ministry at the age of 24 – on the basis that history majors typically can’t do math – she promptly enrolled in the toughest finance courses she could find at the University of Victoria and returned to the ministry with proof that she could. She ascended quickly; at 36, she was named B.C.’s deputy minister of finance, the youngest person and first woman to ever hold the position. Then she broke through another barrier by taking maternity leave.

After three years as deputy minister, in which time she achieved the province’s first triple-A credit rating in 20 years, Vrooman took the helm of Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union. She was drawn to its embrace of the “triple bottom line”: financial success and environmental and community sustainability. During her 13-year tenure as CEO, Vancity achieved many firsts: first financial institution in North America to achieve carbon neutrality – halving its energy consumption and hiring locally to cut staff commutes; first Canadian financial institution to join the United Nations’ Collective Commitment to Climate Action and to be invited to join the Global Alliance for Banking on Values. It also became the largest organization in Canada to commit to a living wage – more than twice B.C.’s minimum wage.

Vrooman’s sustainability credentials are beyond reproach, and they are well suited to her present role. The federal government’s determination to hitch the post-pandemic recovery to its more ambitious climate agenda is reflected in the $10-billion pandemic-recovery Growth Plan announced last October. The funds will be channelled through the CIB into five strategic areas: clean power, zero-emission buses, building retrofits, broadband expansion and agricultural infrastructure. Trudeau also set a $1-billion target for Indigenous infrastructure projects.

With a consensus growing around the need to use public funds to leverage private investment in economic recovery efforts – from the International Monetary Fund’s strong endorsement of the strategy to the Institute for Sustainable Finance’s recently published finding that public–private partnerships will be instrumental to Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy – the CIB takes on a new profile.

Certainly, Vrooman sees this moment as a tremendous opportunity. “The pandemic has forced us to look at priorities,” she says on an 8am call from her electric vehicle, en route to her Vancouver office. “If anything, it has brought greater focus to infrastructure. Infrastructure is just a platform for the country we want.”

Not surprisingly, Vrooman’s definition of that aspirational country aligns with that of the Liberal government: inclusive, especially with respect to Indigenous communities; digitally connected; and sustainable in its building and energy infrastructure. But Vrooman’s track record demonstrates that these are not just talking points.

Last July, Vrooman left Vancity to become president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority. It seemed a counterintuitive move – plunging into a carbon-intensive industry that has been dealt a near death-blow by the pandemic – but Vrooman’s initiatives have been entirely forward-looking. She has proposed an energy retrofit of the airport’s main building, a circular economy (in which the airport would generate no waste) and collaboration with airlines to help reduce their carbon contributions. She has also elevated the airport’s partnership with the local Musqueam Indian Band, insisting that it be involved in any decisions related to the airport’s land use.

Vrooman considers the government’s $1-billion allocation to Indigenous infrastructure projects “quite significant,” viewing Indigenous communities as “a key part of the overall climate and economic path for this country.” She cites the Oneida Energy Storage project – with which the CIB has signed a memorandum of understanding – as an example of a project committed to climate goals, job generation and the “better future” that she finds is top of mind for many Indigenous communities. The joint venture between utility-scale storage developer NRStor and the Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario is designed to capture the up to 30% of energy that regularly gets lost in transmission. It would, if built, be the largest battery-energy storage facility in Canada.

“If built”: therein lies the rub. “The challenge of infrastructure is that, by its very nature, it’s long-term,” Vrooman says. “Everyone always wants infrastructure yesterday.”

But Vrooman recognizes the importance of the long view; in fact, it’s what draws her to infrastructure, just as it drew her to finance. “The allocation of capital – who gets the loan and who doesn’t – fundamentally changes the future and the communities we create.” Likewise, she says, the best infrastructure results from robust consideration of the question “What purpose are we building to?”

Vrooman finds this prospect extremely exciting. “There’s not many times in your life and career that you have a chance to do things that have such a lasting impact. The challenge is to do them right.”

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

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