News | Board of Governors hosts first community session with members of the McGill community

Board says “there’s no answer” on what constitutes “grave social injury”

On Thursday February 2, the McGill Board of Governors (BoG) held their third meeting of the 2016-2017 academic year.

The Board heard Principal Suzanne Fortier’s remarks, a presentation from the Director of Campus Public Safety, brief reports from various committees. The BoG also saw a report (and response) regarding the open forums on sustainability held earlier in the year, which dealt with recommendations of the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) Report on Divestment.

At the end of the meeting, the Board held its first community session, in which they responded to follow-up questions from students and members of the McGill community who had previously submitted a written question to the Board.

Response to the open forums on sustainability

McGill law professor Frédéric Bachand spoke to the Board about the report and response regarding the Open Forum on the recommendations of 2016 CAMSR report regarding divestment.

At the end of the meeting, the Board held its first community session, in which they responded to follow-up questions from students and members of the McGill community who had previously submitted a written question to the Board.

In October 2016, the University held three open forum meetings to “[create] a ‘comprehensive climate action plan’ in order to reduce McGill‘s own carbon footprint while expanding initiatives in sustainability research and education” and “[develop] concrete measures to ensure our investments comply with recognized Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles.”

These meetings were in response to CAMSR’s March 2016 report in which they dismissed Divest McGill’s request that the University divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Bachand had been mandated by the Provost and Vice Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi to organize the open forum, gather feedback, and report on it.

He briefly spoke about the open forum meetings: “As you can imagine, many of the questions that were discussed were sensitive, were difficult, were controversial in some ways, but I was amazed at the turnout by our community members who participated extensively.”

These meetings were in response to CAMSR’s March 2016 report in which they dismissed Divest McGill’s request that the University divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Bachand and Manfredi each spoke briefly about the contents of the report, but focused more on questions or comments from Board members.  

Member-at-large and one of the chairmen of the Board Ram Panda said:“I don’t think we’re debating the essence of the problem, but I guess how we approach it is where we have some dissention, and perhaps the speed with which people should move is also on discussion. I’m a little pained to see a frequent occurrence that some of the community members feel this is a weak response or disappointment in terms of trust factors.”

“I guess that’s something we have to work towards because I believe we’re aligned in the same direction,” Panda continued. “Solutions may not always be what we’d like to have. But I guess now looking at the south [at the U.S.], probably our approaches and reactions will […] look more advanced.”

Stuart “Kip” Cobbett, chair of the Board, agreed with Panda, claiming that “we may well be doing more than many students are aware of [and this is] a common situation at McGill.”

“As you can imagine, many of the questions that were discussed were sensitive, were difficult, were controversial in some ways, but I was amazed at the turnout by our community members who participated extensively.”

“We’ve got to come up with […] a better way to communicate,” he continued. “Sustainability is now […] very much part of this board’s responsibility and stewardship. This is a continuous process [and] we will come back to it and we’ll have a report at least once a year on what we are doing […] to reduce our carbon footprint.”

However, Victor Frankel, President of the Post-graduate Student Society of McGill (PGSS), noted that he thought that “a lot of the trouble that came out of the decision that was adopted from the CAMSR report was the issues with accepting the decision that said essentially fossil fuels do not cause grave social injury.”

“My question to you, Professor [Bachand],” asked Frankel, “is do you think that the campus community would like to see this issue revisited by the Board of Governors, [or] do you think they would like to see the CAMSR report rescinded and reconsidered once more?”

“I guess that’s something we have to work towards because I believe we’re aligned in the same direction,” Panda continued. “Solutions may not always be what we’d like to have. But I guess now looking at the south [at the U.S.], probably our approaches and reactions will […] look more advanced.”

Bachand responded that “there were some policy discussions for this Board and other units of McGill to see what could be done based on that feedback, but there’s nothing much more that I can add in terms of the report.”

A first at McGill: a BoG community session

The Board had received three questions in writing from students or members of the McGill community, the responses to which were posted online. Only two questions were discussed further at the community session, as one person who submitted a question was not at the meeting.

Chloe, a student, asked one of the questions: “Given the divisive state of politics at the moment, to what extent can McGill remain a politically neutral institution? How does McGill define political neutrality?”

The Board provided a written response to this question: “The University acknowledges the right to political association of all members of its community and the respect for the exchange of views in responsible open discourse. The University reserves stating its position on particular matters when they are directly related to its mission and principles. In such cases, the University’s position is aligned with its mission and based on the principles of academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity and inclusiveness.”

“Given the divisive state of politics at the moment, to what extent can McGill remain a politically neutral institution? How does McGill define political neutrality?”

However, when asked if she had any follow-up questions, Chloe responded, “I know that part of McGill’s mission statement is ‘includes the creation and dissemination of knowledge by offering the best possible education […] Is it the best possible education if we’re passing up opportunities to be proactive in informing public policy?”

Fortier responded: “It’s a good question but it depends on which public policy we’re talking about. Of course public policy that [is] directly related to our mission, we express our view, and we are consulted for our views all the time. Other areas of public policy might be further away.”

As an example, Fortier cited the issue of legalizing marijuana in Canada. As an institution, she said, McGill would not provide a view, but the University is invited to send the names of experts on the topic in the McGill community who could participate in a discussion on public policy.

“The University reserves stating its position on particular matters when they are directly related to its mission and principles. In such cases, the University’s position is aligned with its mission and based on the principles of academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity and inclusiveness.”

As an example of an issue that specifically concerns McGill’s principles and values, Fortier cited the Charter of Values, which went against McGill’s “commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.”

“Social injury” vs. “Grave social injury”

The second question discussed during the community session was asked by Jed Lenetsky, a member of Divest McGill. Lenetsky asked in writing, “In the 2016 CAMSR Report on Divestment, CAMSR argued that fossil fuel companies cause social injury, but not grave social injury. Additionally, when members of CAMSR met with Divest McGill in May 2016, the Chair of the Board discussed how the degree social injury that an industry can commit exists on a threshold. What is the threshold at which social injury becomes grave social injury? What evidence needs to be given to prove that an industry causes grave social injury?”

The Board’s written response was:

“Social injury is defined in the CAMSR terms of reference as follows: ‘social injury means the grave injurious impact which the activities of a company is found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, or on the natural environment. Such activities include those 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, or to protect the natural environment. However, a company shall not be deemed to cause “social injury” simply because it does business with other companies which are themselves engaged in socially injurious activities.’”

“Pursuant to this definition,” the response continues, “the determination on the threshold and evidence needed to prove grave social injury would depend on the facts of each case and would include an assessment of the degree and extent of injury that would result from industry activities that would warrant a finding of grave injurious impact.”

When asked if the written response adequately answered his question, Lenetsky said, “to my knowledge it seems as though you haven’t answered my question as to what constitutes the threshold at which social injury becomes grave social injury […] what is the objective evidence based threshold, either broadly or using […] a specific context?”

“Pursuant to this definition,” the response continues, “the determination on the threshold and evidence needed to prove grave social injury would depend on the facts of each case and would include an assessment of the degree and extent of injury that would result from industry activities that would warrant a finding of grave injurious impact.”

“That’s a question, Jed, you won’t be surprised to hear that I have wrestled with,” Cobbett responded. “The short answer is ‘there’s no answer.’ I cannot give you an answer, not because I’m trying to be evasive, but because it is utterly fact-based.”

“The definition of grave social injury is a new definition for us, previously it was social injury. I can give you an example; CAMSR a few years ago decided that tobacco companies caused social injury. Would we have decided that it caused grave social injury? Probably. But to come up with an empirical definition of what causes grave social injury, I cannot do it.”

Lenetsky responded that Divest McGill had submitted a 150-page research brief along with its petition when it asked McGill to divest from fossil fuels, and thus asked what “additional evidence needs to be presented to CAMSR to adequately demonstrate that fossil fuel companies are engaging in grave social injury as defined by CAMSR’s mandate.”

“That’s a question, Jed, you won’t be surprised to hear that I have wrestled with,” Cobbett responded. “The short answer is ‘there’s no answer.’ I cannot give you an answer, not because I’m trying to be evasive, but because it is utterly fact-based.”

“I’m not going to reopen the discussion on CAMSR’s decision,” Cobbett responded.

“But there is a problem if you can’t tell me the evidence that was used or the criteria that was used to make that decision,” Lenetsky argued.

Cobbett responded that the evidence is in the report, and Lenetsky again argued he did not see it there.

“I’m not going to reopen the discussion on CAMSR’s decision,” Cobbett responded.

Cobbett responded “You may not see it there but it’s there. […] If you have any specific questions on the decision I’m happy to go through it.”

Lenetsky said he welcomed the opportunity, and the community session then ended.

 


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