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News | Principal Fortier sits down with campus media

Fortier discusses divestment, student activism, mental health, and more

On October 4, Principal Suzanne Fortier and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens sat down with members of the campus media to answer their questions.

The McGill Tribune (MT): You’ve just received a Gold rating for sustainability, according to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). In light of this, is divestment from fossil fuels something that the administration or the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) will be considering?

Suzanne Fortier (SF): Certainly sustainability is an area [to which] we are paying a lot of attention. We have an office of sustainability, the Board of Governors now has as part of its mandate a stewardship of our sustainability initiatives on campus, and we’re going to focus both on how we ourselves reduce our footprint in our own campuses, on the research side we’re made major investments, and also on […] teaching and learning. We’ve made an investment of ten millions to act as a seed fund for the very large initiative of sustainability.

The McGill Daily (MD): Over the past couple months, we’ve seen Indigenous people from the Standing Rock Sioux community protest the Dakota Access Pipeline project, which threatens their fresh water supply. $27 million from McGill’s endowment is invested in companies which are profiting from this pipeline. Meanwhile, Indigenous communities near Canada’s tar sands report unusually high levels of cancers and autoimmune diseases. If this doesn’t constitute “grave social harm” on the part of fossil fuel companies, what does?

SF: The question of […] social harm is not a simple one in the case of fossil fuels. There are very negative impacts of fossil fuels and some that have been positive. […] I was reading recently that some members of the First Nations are very much opposed to the pipelines, some are in favour. […] It’s a topic on which there’s a lot of difference of opinion, even within First Nations communities, so I would feel out of place in speaking on behalf of McGill.

“There are very negative impacts of fossil fuels and some that have been positive.”

Le Délit (LD): On the topic of divestment and student activism, are you concerned that there might be a growing divide between the administration and a certain part of the student body, particularly student activists?

SF: In a democratic community, there are differences of opinion, always, and what is important for us as an institution is making sure different opinions are expressed freely, without fear, […] and that as a community we can move forward in […] constructive ways. […] I think that both the administration and our governance bodies have […] listened to all these topics with great seriousness and respect. They agree as to where we need to be, not necessarily on the path and the specific actions to take. But […] some of the actions we’re taking now are a direct result of […] the advocacy around topics like sustainability.

“I think that both the administration and our governance bodies have […] listened to all these topics with great seriousness and respect.”

The Bull & Bear (BB): What do you think the role of the Principal’s office is on the question of student activism?

SF: When it comes to […] political topics, my role there is to keep on our campus an environment where different views can be expressed. Freedom of speech is a value that we protect. Respect of diversity, respect of different people’s opinion, that people feel safe–that’s part of my role. But it is not my role to express my political view on behalf of the community, because those views are diverse, and I must respect that.

BB: In that case, what justification could you give for the email sent by your office last spring disavowing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

SF: BDS is a good example. There were people […] who put pressure on me to come out with a view, and I did not, initially, because I respected the government of the student body. […] There is a part of [BDS] that is very closely linked to our mission, and the mission of a university [is] to stand up and make sure […] we don’t cut our ties with any academic institution or scholars no matter where they live, and what political situation they’re in. […] I was very careful […] to make clear that [the email] was not representing the views of the whole university.

“But it is not my role to express my political view on behalf of the community, because those views are diverse, and I must respect that.”

MD: Many of the people behind the BDS motion have origins in Palestine, so these are people who are personally affected by the illegal occupation of that region, which they would say McGill is tacitly supporting by investing in companies that profit from it. In light of this, how would you respond to students who perhaps feel that the email used the language of freedom of speech to actually silence the views of marginalized students?

SF: I would not share that opinion. I think we were very clear about a statement that was close to our mission as a university. As I said, the larger question, which is, I think, part of the BDS vote, is a very complex, […] highly political issue, and I would not […] make a statement about that situation. […] I’m not an expert at all in Middle East politics, […] but where I feel I can speak is when it is closely related to our academic mission. […] All the universities in Canada had a joint statement regarding the situation in Turkey this summer when […] many academics were fired and so on. […] But you will not see Universities Canada […] expressing opinions regarding political situations in the world.

MD: How would you respond to the allegation that it was a political gesture to choose to respond to the BDS motion, as opposed to other SSMU motions?

SF: [The motion] was problematic for SSMU itself and I think afterwards they did revisit the wisdom of putting [forward] this motion. So it is not a motion that was, as most motions are, very closely related to life on campus, to issues of our university. It was in the political sphere.

MT: Supposedly we’re seeing a streamlining of the mental health services this year, but what will be done about long wait times and lack of space for students seeking help?

Ollivier Dyens (OD): We’re working on a mental health and wellness [initiative] that should come to Senate in the fall. […] Not every student that comes to Mental Health or Counselling or Health Services needs to see a psychiatrist right away, so it will be a process where students will […] get services very quickly. […] And for those who have more fundamental issues, then we’ll free up time from our psychiatrists to actually deal with these things. […] This step-care approach has worked in other universities.

“So it is not a motion that was, as most motions are, very closely related to life on campus, to issues of our university. It was in the political sphere.”

LD (in French): What is the current state of French language and culture at McGill, and what could be done to promote French at McGill–particularly to ensure that international students learn French when they come here?

SF (in French): I believe currently more than 65% of students on our campus can express themselves in French. […] We have many courses in French, and we’ll open as many classes as are necessary so that all students can learn French if they wish. We promote French a lot, for example through the site ‘Decouvrir le French side de McGill.’ […] We also promote cultural events in Montreal […] and throughout Quebec. […] So we’re doing a lot. […] There’s been an enormous improvement in the state of French language and culture in the past few years, and we’ll continue in this vein, because McGill is an increasingly global university that remains anchored in Quebec culture.

OD (in French): We would love for all McGill students to speak French and English perfectly when they graduate. […] We would like for students to have the choice of whether or not to stay [and find work] in Quebec, and it’s not always the case.

BB: You’ve mentioned that one of your priorities is to ensure that McGill’s brand image is very strong in Quebec. What has been done in this regard, and what are the next steps?

SF: We do a lot of work in external relations with the Montreal community, we put a lot of emphasis on the francophone leaders in the community. […] We try as much as possible to bring people from the community to our campus, so that they can see McGill, because […] unfortunately there are still people who think of McGill as […] an anglophone fortress until they come to campus. They still have this very old image, which is not at all what McGill is today. […] We know that we have to constantly do more to be present visibly in the community.

“There’s been an enormous improvement in the state of French language and culture in the past few years […]”

MD: What is being done concretely at the upper administrative level to improve hiring equity at McGill?

SF: Pools of possible candidates, particularly for certain types of positions, like professors, are extremely small. […] If you look at Aboriginal, visible minorities, people with physical disabilities, [universities] tend to actually compete against one another. But on women, […] I believe its 45 per cent of new assistant professors are female, so we are close to parity. […] We also have equity training with our hiring processes, so that is happening as well.

MD: In the spring, a prospective donor decided not to donate to McGill due to our ongoing failure to divest from fossil fuels, and research has shown that the University has effectively lost tens of millions of dollars over the past three years by not divesting. In light of this, how is not divesting a financially viable option for us in the long term?

“Unfortunately there are still people who think of McGill as […] an anglophone fortress until they come to campus.”

SF: I’m not sure I’m going to answer that question. […] We don’t accept gifts on the basis of political views. When our donors make gifts to our universities, the discussion is about […] what are their goals in contributing. […] We’ve refused gifts, because either it wasn’t in line with our values or […] we knew that we would not be able to deliver. […] We’ve lived through a very tumultuous market. […] We are not active managers of the endowment. We […] work with managers from outside the university. […] Our endowment has been fairly healthy overall. […] We’ve done a good job for us.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version was published in The McGill Daily’s print edition on Monday, October 17. 


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