Shareholder activists are gaining ground in their push for a greater voice at public companies in Canada, according to a report published Thursday by Toronto-based shareholder advisory firm Kingsdale Advisors.

The Kingsdale report, which reviews the 2017 proxy season, indicates that shareholder activism is on the upswing. Although there were fewer public proxy fights in 2017, the report notes that shareholder activists were notably more successful — scoring at least partial victories with companies 70% of the time, compared with just 33% in 2016 and 55% in 2015.

For one thing, shareholders are increasingly pushing back on excessive executive compensation, the report says. Kingsdale saw a record number of recommendations from the major proxy advisory firms — Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis — against management in so-called "say-on-pay" advisory votes on compensation plans.

There were 30 recommendations against say-on-pay by the two firms combined, a record according to the report, and "more companies than ever before" failed to get 75% shareholder approval for their compensation plans, it says.

The report also sees the push for greater proxy access gaining steam in Canada. Shareholder proposals on the issue at Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) are "just the beginning," it says, and that other issuers will be receiving similar proxy access proposals in the future.

"It is believed that most, if not all, pension funds in Canada will support proxy access shareholder proposals and that ISS will continue to support such proposals as they did with TD and RBC," the report says.

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues are increasingly significant to shareholders, and issuers, according to the report.

"Investors are becoming increasingly interested in companies' ESG profiles alongside their fundamentals, while companies may find it difficult to understand how their ESG profile will be understood and benchmarked," it says. "With an increasing belief that long-term sustainability can equal long-term results and with a new generation of socially and environmentally conscious investors accumulating wealth, issuers can expect heightened scrutiny."

"This year, we saw issues around corporate governance take centre stage, reflecting the growing importance of topics like compensation, environmental and social issues, and shareholder engagement to both issuers and shareholders," says Wes Hall, executive chairman and founder of Kingsdale Advisors. in a statement.

"The bar for governance standards only continues to rise. Proxy advisors, Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis are tightening their policies and investors, even those that are considered passive, are becoming increasingly focused on management and board accountability," he adds.