TORONTO — A slew of equity capital markets offerings in the cannabis sector helped smaller Canadian investment banks and boutiques climb up the league table rankings in the first quarter, according to Thomson Reuters data released on Thursday.

Cannabis-related offerings accounted for about 24 per cent of overall Canadian deal activity in a the first quarter, when the total dropped 40.5 per cent from a year ago to $7.5 billion, the data showed. Volumes were largely hurt by weakness in the heavyweight energy sector. It was the slowest first quarter since at least 2014.

"The decline of energy issuance has been dramatic relative to last year. If this keeps up, it will be a tough year overall from a volume perspective," said Sante Corona, executive managing director and head of equity capital markets at TD Securities.

TD Bank (TD.TO), Canaccord Genuity (CF.TO) and Credit Suisse (CS.P) took the top three positions in the equity capital markets rankings, advising on deals worth $954 million, $797 million and $677 million respectively. National Bank of Canada (NA.TO), GMP Capital (GMP.TO) and Eight Capital rounded out the top six. Canaccord advised on 29 deals, the largest number.

The strong performance of Canaccord, GMP and Eight Capital is unusual because the six biggest Canadian banks tend to take all the top spots, often only swapping places. With the exception of Bank of Montreal (BMO.TO), which has started participating in cannabis deals, the major banks have stayed away.

But the strong contribution from the cannabis sector, which includes dozens of companies, highlights the business opportunity it presents, and all the major banks are evaluating the risks and benefits, sources close to the big banks said over the past week on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive client matters.

"It's an entrepreneurial business model attracting risk capital. So the [big] banks don't like to risk their capital with earlier stage companies," said Daniel Daviau, chief executive of Canaccord and former co-head of investment banking at CIBC.

Daviau said robust mergers and acquisitions in the cannabis industry were driving equity offerings. "Cannabis companies have decided they need scale to attack the global market," he said.

Bankers cited greater depth and breadth of institutional investor interest.

"We're seeing increasing acceptance of the marijuana industry by blue chip investors," said Steve Ottaway, managing director, investment banking at GMP. "It is a natural evolution of the sector as companies are becoming big enough and deals are becoming significant enough to attract mainstream investor attention."

JPMorgan Asset Management invested in a $133-million offering by MedReleaf, a major licensed producer of cannabis, Ottaway said.

JPMorgan did not respond to a request for comment.