On May 23, the Board of Governors (BoG) rejected a petition from Divest McGill calling for McGill’s divestment from investment in companies which profit from fossil fuels and oil sands. A petition calling for divestment from any investment in the formerly known Plan Nord was rejected by the Board as well.
Primarily influencing the BoG’s decision was a recommendation from the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), the BoG’s designated body to review potential concerns regarding social responsibility in University investments.
CAMSR recommended that the BoG reject the petitions, citing an inability of the petitions to prove that “social injury” had occurred under CAMSR’s Terms of Reference – CAMSR’s mandate, and its guidelines for reviewing the social responsibility of University investments.
According to CAMSR’s website, “social injury” implies “the injurious impact which the activities of a company is found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, particularly including activities which violate, or frustrate the enforcement of, rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation of health, safety, or basic freedoms.”
Previously, on April 10, members and representatives of Divest McGill presented their petitions to CAMSR, a committee made up of eight members. After deliberating the arguments put forth by Divest McGill at the meeting, CAMSR determined that neither of the two petitions presented adequate evidence of “social injury.”
Earlier in the evening of May 23, approximately 15 members of Divest McGill and their supporters had gathered outside the James Administration building to greet governors as they made their way to the closed portion of the meeting. These members were invited to the BoG meeting when the open session began – when the decisions regarding the petitions were announced.
Brenda Norris, chair of CAMSR, gave a brief background of her committee before announcing the verdict. She explained that the committee had accepted two petitions for divestment since 2006, including divesting from tobacco companies as well as Burma (Myanmar).
The tobacco decision, in her words, was “a wrenching decision for McGill because … the MacDonald family, who set up MacDonald college, and the Stewart family, were major donors.”
Burma, however, “was an easier decision because the government of Canada was issuing directives that perhaps we should cease from investment because a democratically elected government had been overthrown by a military coup.”
She concluded by stating that in both instances there existed clear evidence of “social injuries” which were absent in the petitions rejected by the Board in the same meeting.
Upon hearing the decision, several participants in the meeting offered their opinion. Josh Redel, the outgoing SSMU President, critiqued the Terms of Reference used to justify the decision.
“I didn’t come to McGill, no one here came to McGill, to be following norms, we came here to set them,” Redel told The Daily. “And I think that using a 77 word mandate is an unfortunate excuse for not looking further into this.”
Michael Boychuk, a member of the BoG, defended the decision by outlining the economic incentives offered by McGill’s investments.
“This university survives because of the investments that are made by the University, in addition to the funding it gets from the government,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, Canada is a resource-based company; that’s a fact. It’s not going to change anytime soon.”
Norris also cited this point, notably absent from her speech during the BoG meeting, in an interview with The Daily following the meeting.
“If we divest from fossil fuels and everything else, it’s not going to change it, somebody else is going to buy it,” Norris said. “Students might feel great that they’ve divested, but our income goes down, fewer students can come to McGill, and what is the act of the social injury in the oil sands?”
In an interview with The Daily, David Summerhays, a representative of Divest McGill, expressed disappointment in the BoG’s decision.
“We thought we had a chance of CAMSR saying yes to divestment, though I don’t think anyone was shocked that they didn’t right away,” said Summerhays. “That said, I think we were expecting them to find that there was social injury, but do something inadequate about it, such as shareholder activism.”
Although Summerhays noted that the presence of CAMSR at all was unique compared to many American universities, he expressed hope that the Terms of Reference would be changed.
“There was general consensus in the discussion that the Terms of Reference for the Committee to Advise need to be reviewed. And they will be reviewed over the summer and fall,” he said. The Committee is required to review its Terms of Reference every three years, a point that was brought up at the May 23 meeting.
“If an industry whose work leads to the death and displacement of millions of people falls outside their definition of social injury, we obviously think that they need a new definition.”
According to Summerhays, the next steps for Divest McGill are to respond to CAMSR’s report on their petition, as well as to discuss the matter with McGill’s incoming principal Suzanne Fortier.
Divest McGill’s media contact, Amina Moustaqim-Barrette, also explained that the group’s efforts would not end. “We have the support of the three major student societies at McGill, which represent 35,000 students here,” she said. “So we’ll definitely keep campaigning and keep on going.”