A lot has been said in recent months about the need to reform the fundamental structures of this University: to begin to live up to the ideals that we as students, professors, and even administrators have given to this institution we call McGill. The need for greater student involvement in university decision making, reforming how we view protest on campus, promoting dialogue between different members of the McGill community to prevent future conflict; all these are important fights, however, the issue that registers most outside the Roddick Gates is McGill’s investments.
McGill has invested with a series of companies whose operations do not exemplify social and ethical leadership, but instead cause environmental degradation and human rights abuses. And unlike an incompetent senate or an autocratic principal, investing in these companies does not just harm us, but perpetuates abusive corporate practices on a global scale. In 2011, McGill had an endowment fund of $962.3-million, which is invested in a variety of different Canadian and international firms, managed by external investment managers, such as Pyramis Global Advisor who include companies like Suncor and Gold Corp in its portfolio. These companies have documented records of human rights and environmental abuse.
Goldcorp’s Marlin mine in Guatemala has become synonymous with bad corporate practice, with water contamination from the mine leading to disease in nearby communities. Community leaders protesting the mine have received anonymous death threats. Little of the mine’s revenue has gone to benefit the community. The adverse environmental and social affects have led to groups like the International Labour Organization and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights calling for the mine’s suspension. As of June 23, 2010 the government said it would look into shutting down the operation, yet production still continues.
And we come to the Tar Sands giant Suncor, whose actions are strikingly similar to Goldcorp’s – except they did not occur in Latin America but right here at home. The story of the people of Fort Chipewyan first broke in 2006, when a local doctor reported abnormally high cancer rates among the native population living along that part of the Athabasca River. Subsequent studies showed that the river in which much of the population relied on for water and fish showed above average levels of arsenic as a result of seepage from a nearby Suncor tailings pond. Suncor had known about the seepage yet done nothing. Furthermore a Suncor study from November 2006 revealed that the arsenic level in the food of the people of Fort Chipewyan was 453 times the acceptable level, yet still nothing was done and the people of Fort Chipewyan were not informed. When our University says, in its own environmental policy, that it wishes to be “actively promoting the restoration and preservation of a healthy environment for the future and in contributing to building an equitable world”, is it by investing in these companies that it hopes to do so?
I propose an alternative. Those companies which have been proven to cause grievous social injury should be divested from and replaced with more ethical investment alternatives. How then, you may ask, do you propose to bring about this change? The framework already exists. McGill has a Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility, whose job is to hear complaints about social injuries committed by companies McGill has dealings with, with the right, if social injury has occurred, to recommend disinvestment from the offending company. However, the committee has not met for two years and the complaints process is slow and unwieldy. Rather than work to solve the problem, it serves as a symbol of the administration’s reluctance to live up to even its own stated ideals. It is time for us as students, along with other members of the McGill community, to take it back, to push for an efficient and proactive social injury committee to oversee the investment process with greater power to divest from those companies which the community decides have caused unacceptable social harm. This can be done, the mechanisms exist, it is time for us to see that they work. To do so would not only send a message to those offending companies in a way letters and petitions never could, it would also help us along the way to preventing the unquestioned corporatization of this university and move us closer to our ideal of an inclusive, sustainable, and socially-just McGill. This is our endowment. Let’s see to it that it’s not investing in corporate abuse on our behalf.
Sean Phipps is a U1 Latin American Studies Student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org