Commentary | Recognizing social injury

A call to action for an ethical endowment

Divest McGill entered the historic halls of the James Administration building in May 2013 to present months of research, discussion, and mobilization toward divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Citing the urgency of climate change, and the corruption of democracy at the hands of the industry, we called on McGill to act as a moral beacon and take its investments out of companies that produce, refine, transport, or sell fossil fuels. Our group submitted a petition and several briefs to the Board of Governors (BoG) outlining the social injury caused by the fossil fuel industry. Specifically, these were received by the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), a subcommittee of the BoG that is tasked with maintaining ethical investments in the University.

Disappointingly, later that month, CAMSR rejected the call for McGill to take a strong stance in fighting climate change and challenging the social license of the fossil fuel industry. The devastating effects of climate change largely driven by the industry, including the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, were deemed to fall outside of their definition of social injury. However, the BoG expressed gratitude that Divest McGill had brought to light shortfalls in the CAMSR process, and pointed to the Terms of Reference review in Fall 2013 as an opportunity for improvement.

Let’s take a step back, and acknowledge the encouraging fact that McGill has an ethical investment review process at all. In discussion with other fossil fuel divestment campaigns, students often only get the board’s attention by angrily banging on the door. It’s similarly notable that CAMSR acted transparently and released the report outlining the reasons for their rejection.

Divest McGill presented extensive research of climate wreckage, distorted science, and destruction of Indigenous communities at the hands of the fossil fuel industry. We demonstrated that should the industry burn more than one fifth of its current carbon reserves, it would throw our planet into climate chaos. We came with overwhelming community support, including mandates from all three major student unions, multiple endorsements, and over 1,200 signatures from students, staff, faculty, and alumni.

This process made it clear that there are big holes to be filled in the CAMSR process. With no documentation of independent research or corroboration, their report claimed that Divest McGill had presented “no evidence of social injury.” CAMSR specifically pointed to a lack of court findings that social injury had occurred, negating the precedent of McGill’s divestment from the law-abiding tobacco industry. They also claimed that the industry was subject to strong regulation, ignoring the overwhelming power and sway that the fossil fuel industry holds in our political system. This kind of industry influence results in shockingly poor regulation, like the estimated 0.9 per cent of environmental violations from tar sands production that are enforced by the Albertan government.

Amid mingling following the Board of Governors decision, the chair of CAMSR revealed that she had referred to information “off the top of [her] head” that investments in renewable energy are not economically viable. The Divest McGill campaign has not made any recommendations as to what McGill should reinvest in, so this (unfounded) claim was irrelevant to our proposal and should not have been considered in the decision-making process. More staggeringly, she stated that McGill’s primary moral imperative in investing is to earn the greatest financial return for endowment donors. If profit is the main consideration, why bother with a social responsibility process at all?

Unfortunately, last year’s meeting has been unsuccessful thus far in catalyzing the larger conversation needed about the role of CAMSR, and on how the Board of Governors approaches the issue of social injury. The terms of reference review, occurring as we speak, has gone largely unnoticed and underplayed, and the BoG has made no indication that they will revise their terms or gather wider consultation. Most importantly, they have made no commitment to the inclusion of climate change as part of their definition of social injury.

This is not a formal response to the BoG, but rather a call to action on two fronts. One, join the Divest McGill campaign and continue fighting for climate justice on campus. Two, tell the BoG that CAMSR must be accountable to the McGill community, and to its own mandate. We suspect that as a world-class university full of intelligent people, McGill has at least a few resources to ensure that the recourse to social injury is rigorous and reflective of the interests and desires of the McGill community.


If you’re interested in getting involved in Divest McGill or starting a conversation on CAMSR, send us an email at divestmcgill@gmail.com.


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