At 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday, March 29, nine members of Divest McGill, a campus climate justice group, entered the James Administration building through a back door and began a sit-in in the reception area outside Principal Suzanne Fortier’s office. They remained there for 72 hours, protesting the Board of Governors (BoG)’s recent decision not to divest its holdings in the fossil fuel industry.
The BoG voted against divestment on March 23 during a closed session of a meeting outside its regular schedule. The agenda had not been publicized in advance, unlike its other meetings. The BoG’s decision followed the release of a report by its Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), which claimed that climate change does not cause “grave social injury,” and that divestment was therefore unwarranted.
During their sit-in, the activists met with Fortier for their first formal meeting in two years to discuss their frustration with the BoG’s decision and articulate their demands. The Daily provided live coverage of events from the reception room throughout the week.
Meanwhile, a larger group of Divest McGill members and supporters set up camp in Community Square, where they held daily rallies and “teach-ins” in support of divestment. The week of protest culminated in a ceremony on Friday morning during which several McGill alumni returned their diplomas to protest the BoG’s decision.
The activists staging the sit-in in Fortier’s reception room had three demands for the administration: that the University hold public hearings on the CAMSR report and educational events concerning divestment and climate change and that the concerns raised at these events be addressed in a revised version of the report submitted by January 2017; that CAMSR publicly disclose all expert testimony gathered during its investigation on climate change and divestment; and that Fortier make a public statement acknowledging that the fossil fuel industry causes grave social harm.
Shortly after their arrival in the reception room, the activists were met by Vice-President (Administration and Finance) Michael Di Grappa, Vice-President (Communications and External Relations) Olivier Marcil, and Chief of Staff Susan Aberman, who received copies of Divest McGill’s demands.
At this initial meeting, the administration called the demands unrealistic, denying the broad support in the McGill community for fossil fuel divestment.
Later that day, Dean of Students André Costopoulos stopped by the reception area, and spoke briefly with Emily Boytinck, a member of Divest McGill and current Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP External. Security personnel had initially told the group that they could not stay in the room, and repeatedly told them to leave. Costopoulos, however, said otherwise, telling Boytinck that “as long as [the sit-in is] safe and there’s no danger, there’s no reason for the administration to act in any way.”
Life inside the James Administration building
During the next 48 hours, there was virtually no interaction between the administration and the nine student activists. Soon after the students’ arrival in the reception area, security personnel were stationed outside the exterior doors, and all doors leading to the inner offices were double-locked.
Meanwhile, staff employed in the inner offices were directed by McGill Security to take an alternate route through the building, to avoid the reception room. On Wednesday afternoon, the second day of the sit-in, some of the students expressed frustration over this, telling The Daily that they felt somewhat ignored by the administration.
As the sit-in continued, the cramped physical space began to take its toll on the protesters. Fortier’s reception room lacks windows, so for much of the week, the only source of fresh air was through a slightly open window in a nearby washroom.
Additionally, some of the lights in the room were reportedly motion-activated, and remained on throughout the sit-in, making it difficult to sleep. By Thursday morning, many of the activists described feeling restless, exhausted, and somewhat disoriented as a result of the constant fluorescent glare combined with the lack of fresh air and natural light.
The students were also not permitted to walk around in the administration building except to access a nearby washroom and water fountain. They were only allowed to descend to the lobby one at a time to meet with members of the press and receive deliveries of food from supporters.
Despite the mental and physical stresses of their environment, the mood in the reception room remained overwhelmingly positive throughout the week.
“[Our] advantage is in our solidarity, and I think that’s where [the opponents of our cause] fall apart.”
In a post on Divest McGill’s website published on Wednesday, activist Ava Mohsenin, who was a part of the sit-in, wrote: “It’s easy to feel isolated up here – no sunlight, no windows, no showers, no visitors except for The McGill Daily. But what is keeping us […] hopeful and inspired is the growing number of campers outside, camping with us for climate justice. […] It’s the University of Toronto locking their President’s Office in response to our sit-in, fearing their divestment campaign will follow suit. It’s the media [coverage that] draws attention to our call for transparency.”
Speaking to The Daily, another activist present at the sit-in, who wished to remain anonymous, shared Mohsenin’s positive outlook. “I hold [the other students here] in the highest respect,” he said, “and I consider them fellow activists that I can really confide in. [Our] advantage is in our solidarity, and I think that’s where [the opponents of our cause] fall apart. Our dynamics are surprisingly […] composed, [given] the amount of stress we’ve been under.”
He also expressed an appreciation for the generally pleasant and accommodating staff and security personnel who interacted with the activists, an opinion echoed by the rest of the group on more than one occasion.
The only incident of direct confrontation between the activists and staff occurred on Tuesday morning, immediately after the group’s arrival in the reception room. As Aberman was entering the reception area from Fortier’s office, Divest member Michael Lifshitz attempted to hold open the door to allow the group to get through, eventually sitting down in front of it.
A building employee then assaulted Lifshitz, pulling him roughly away from the doorway, and at one point attempting to shut the door while his arm was in the way. A McGill Security officer present at the scene made no effort to intervene directly, but instead yelled at Lifshitz, who remained sitting, to get out of the way. The officer also told The Daily’s reporter that she did not have the right to be taking photographs, and attempted to block her view as the assault was in progress.
The Daily contacted McGill Security to ask why this incident was allowed to take place, given that McGill Security’s stated mission is to protect the McGill community, but has received no reply at the time of publication.
Meeting with Fortier
When the activists began their sit-in on Tuesday morning, Fortier was in California visiting Stanford University. However, she returned on Thursday, and arrived at the reception room at 2:30 p.m. with Provost Christopher Manfredi to meet with the students. According to activist Jed Lenetsky, Fortier had not spoken directly with Divest McGill since the summer of 2014, and had refused to meet with them several times during the past few months.
During Thursday’s meeting, Fortier and Manfredi repeatedly insisted that their priority was to follow the recommendations of the CAMSR report, which included “looking at opportunities for, and supporting, sound investments in alternative […] energy firms, alternative technology development and commercialization,” and raising awareness about climate change.
In response, the Divest McGill members said that supporting a transition to clean energy would certainly be worthwhile, but that the CAMSR report itself and the non-transparent way in which it was presented and voted on were deeply problematic.
The students’ first demand was that the report be rewritten to address the community’s criticisms, but Fortier maintained that the report had been voted on, and was final. Bureaucratic processes such as this must be respected for the sake of democracy, she argued. A Divest McGill member replied that “democracy works best when those who are decision [makers] represent the community.”
Boytinck argued that the report should be rewritten, saying, “[This report] didn’t even talk about Indigenous consent and that is particularly troubling. […] I don’t understand how we can have these public consultation sessions on this report that has such inconsistencies and completely ignore the realities of students on your own campus, and yet refuse to change the report.”
With regard to Divest McGill’s second demand, Fortier told the group that for CAMSR to reveal information about the experts consulted without their consent would be a violation of their freedom of speech. However, she and Manfredi agreed to ask for the experts’ permission to release their information.
“I felt helpless. […] I feel like [Fortier] just doesn’t hear us.”
Fortier categorically refused the activists’ third demand: that she publicly acknowledge the grave social injury caused by the fossil fuel industry. Climate change causes social harm, she told the group, but not grave social harm. She went on to suggest that the social harm caused by fossil fuel companies was comparable to that caused by individuals.
“For the most part,” Fortier said, fossil fuel companies “are lawful companies operating within the law.” She then asked an incredulous Divest McGill member if they themselves had ever broken a law.
After the meeting, The Daily spoke with several of the student activists at the sit-in.
“It bothers me that when they’re making these decisions, deciding that the fossil fuel companies don’t cause grave social injury to Indigenous communities or [marginalized] communities in general, they’re directly ignoring their Indigenous students. It’s insulting to [those] students,” said Sophie Birks.
“I felt helpless. […] I feel like [Fortier] just doesn’t hear us,” said Mohsenin.
In the press release published by Divest McGill after the meeting, activist Julia Bugiel, who had not been present in the reception room, wrote: “The [BoG] ignoring unlawful acts by fossil fuel companies with the reasoning that all companies break the law; the narrow-minded view of social injury; the fundamental ignorance of our arguments; these all point to a Principal who is failing McGill by not upholding the high intellectual standard for which the university is known.”
Diploma returning ceremony
Divest McGill’s week of protest culminated at 11:30 a.m. on Friday April 1, when dozens of McGill students and alumni gathered outside the James Administration building to participate in a diploma returning ceremony. Planned by Divest McGill and alumni, the event provided an opportunity for McGill graduates to express their opinions on the BoG’s refusal to divest.
After exiting the building, the nine Divest members who participated in the sit-in spoke to the crowd gathered outside, condemning the administration’s lack of meaningful action on climate justice, and bringing attention to ongoing acts of protest at campuses across the country.
Each of the nine activists pledged their support to the movement, speaking one at a time:
“We pledge to never give up until McGill divests from the fossil fuel industry. […] We pledge to be on the right side of history. […] We pledge to continue our activism, cognizant of the rights of Indigenous communities, and the struggles of other activists across campus. […] We pledge to persist in direct actions, so we don’t have to return our diplomas when we graduate.”
“We don’t speak loudly, we do not occupy buildings, as these courageous people do, but we speak a language [Fortier] will understand very soon.”
Following this, alumni stood in front of the crowd, one by one, explaining why they were returning their diplomas.
Naghmeh Sabet, one of the alumni returning her diploma, explained that she was a portfolio manager at Scotiabank. She said that a client had recently asked her to manage a $2 million donation to McGill. Upon receiving Fortier’s email announcing the BoG’s vote against divestment, she consulted with her client, and they decided not to make the donation after all. Until McGill divests, she implied, she would advise her other clients not to donate to the university, either.
“The funds that will not come to McGill will hurt,” she said, to loud cheering from the crowd. “We don’t speak loudly, we do not occupy buildings, as these courageous people do, but we speak a language [Fortier] will understand very soon.”
A speaker from the Northwest Territories, Kata Kuhnert, concluded the event, responding directly to CAMSR’s controversial claims: “I can tell you that there is severe, grave social injury caused by fossil fuels.” Northern communities are marginalized and often vulnerable to discrimination, said the speaker, and their lives and their environment are being transformed by the catastrophic effects of climate change. The diploma returning ceremony ended at noon, concluding the week’s events.