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Tar Sands Reality Check Tour kicks off at Concordia

Divest groups pressure universities to stop investing in fossil fuels

On October 9, the Concordia Student Union and Divest McGill hosted the first stop of the Canada-wide Tar Sands Reality Check Tour. The event, organized by Fossil Free Canada, brought together different personalities from the environmental movement against tar sands and fossil fuels, who recapped their progress and considered further action.

Fossil Free Canada is a partnership between and the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition that urges “universities, religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good” to divest from companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels, such as oil or coal.

Cameron Fenton from the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition started the event with a brief history of the movement against tar sands, and discussed the relevance of the growing divestment movement.

“The fundamental goal of this is not simply stopping pollution – it’s achieving justice, and building a more just and sustainable world,” Fenton noted during his speech.

The Tar Sands Reality Check Tour took place during the same week as National Energy Board hearings concerning the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline. Enbridge wants to increase the line’s capacity from 240,000 to 300,000 barrels per day, and reverse the flow from westbound to eastbound. If reversed, the pipeline would carry crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Quebec.

The proposed reversal of Line 9 has sparked a backlash from environmental groups and concerned citizens, especially over a potential for spills. A report published earlier this year by pipeline safety expert Richard Kuprewicz concluded that there was a “high risk” of Line 9 rupturing due to a combination of cracking and corrosion.

According to the Toronto Star, Enbridge’s current response time to spills is between 90 minutes and 4 hours, meaning that the municipalities along the pipeline would most likely be responsible for emergency clean-up.

“Any pipeline that comes out of the tar sands allows for the tar sands to be expanded. It is an imperative that we block each and every pipeline. [Line 9] is not the biggest one, but it’s the one that’s coming through here, so it’s our job to stop it,” said Curtis Murphy, a member of Divest McGill, in an interview with The Daily.

Divest McGill, one of the hosts of the Tour stop in Montreal, is 1 of 14 university divestment groups in Canada. Although concentrated mainly in North America, there are over 300 divestment groups on campuses worldwide.

One of the speakers, former McGill student and activist Audrey Yank, underlined the importance of students and young people in the movement. “Our generation is in an interesting situation. We’re already facing [environmental] change, but we are young enough to actually be involved in it too, to fight it. And it’s not everybody that is in this position. It’s an opportunity for our generation to make this change.”

Anthony Garoufalis-Auger, one of the speakers, and an organizer at Divest Concordia – the newest divest group on Canadian campuses – spoke about strategies for the divestment movement to attract more supporters.

“One step that the divestment movement at Concordia is taking is talking to different student associations, actively […] trying to get the General Assemblies – if there are General Assemblies – to talk about our movement,” he said. “If we can get student associations to talk about this, we can get a lot of people to start getting involved.”

Fenton also emphasized the influence of student activism in the divestment movement. “Last year, a campaign to get campuses to divest from fossil fuel started off in the U.S. and took off faster than anything I’ve ever seen. […] This is happening in so many different places in so many different ways, that we have this new front that we want to pursue.”

In May 2013, Divest McGill presented a petition with 1,300 signatures to McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG), asking McGill to divest from companies that profit from the extraction of fossil fuels or tar sands, as well as the “North for All” plan (formerly known as Plan Nord).

McGill currently invests in a total of 645 publicly-traded companies, of which 35 are involved with fossil fuels, while 14 extract crude oil from tar sands. The stocks and bonds from these companies comprise about 2.5 per cent of McGill’s endowment, according to Divest McGill organizers, which is valued at over $1 billion.

The petition was rejected after the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility – a body that steers University investment toward socially responsible options – recommended against divestment.

Lily Schwarzbaum, one of the organizers of the Tour stop and an organizer with Fossil Free Canada, remained optimistic about the future of divestment at McGill.

“When there is so much visibility and momentum around this idea, I think that the McGill administration will see that there is not even an option about whether or not we should take climate change seriously for the future of our students and our community,” she told The Daily.

Divest McGill continues to pressure McGill to stop investing in fossil fuel industries, according to members.

“Where there is money, there is power,” Murphy said. “[The divestment movement] fundamentally is trying to redistribute power, because there is a lot of power in the hands of some industries and politicians and not enough power in the hands of ordinary people, like students and Indigenous communities. We need to empower those communities because they have not only the skills and the capacity to change things, but the motivation to do so.”

Heather Milton-Lightening, the co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands campaign in Alberta, and one of the speakers at the event, agreed that there is a fundamental power imbalance when it comes to fossil fuels.

“All the environmental legislation, all the changes in Canada were pushed by petroleum producers. That says a lot. That says that the petroleum producers and the people that have money run our country,” Milton-Lightening said. “That is why I really appreciate divestment campaigns and students critically thinking about where the money is.”

“Because at the end of the day, here in Canada, a lot of our strategies need to change. We need to think about who has the money, who’s really controlling the government here in Canada, and who has the ability to give us what we want. And what we want is a new livelihood, a new vision, a new paradigm to move forward.”