News | The growing pressure to divest

Student-led initiatives pave promising path for change

Correction appended January 15, 2014

While McGill continues to maintain its investments in various fossil fuel and tar sands companies, growing pressure from student advocates and organizations has been building to spur the divestment movement among students.

Divest McGill and its efforts to urge the University to divest from tar sands and fossil fuel companies have gained support from the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society, and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society – which together represent over 32,000 students at McGill.

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

As early as February 2010, SSMU voted at a General Assembly to divest from tar sands and financial companies with stakes in fossil fuels. In January 2011, it passed a Five Year Ethical Investment Plan which, among other things, set a clear path for this divestment.

Although SSMU has been quietly divesting its holdings in fossil fuel and tar sands companies since then, in May 2013, the University’s Board of Governors (BoG) voted against divestment, and the University refused to divest its holdings.

The rejection was in large part due to the BoG’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), the committee charged with maintaining the University’s ‘ethical’ investments.

CAMSR’s definition of “social injury” – essentially, the terms of reference guiding an ethical investment – prevented the possibility of climate change being considered a social injury. Advocates have since been working toward a new attempt to change the terms of reference.

“We are actually working on a response to CAMSR, and addressing all of their different reasons which they gave us for rejecting divestment,” said Perry. “We’re also just working on building relationships on campus, not just with students but also with alumni.”

The divestment campaign at McGill follows a larger movement of divestment strategies across universities, cities, and other organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

As a strategy, divestment is one that has a long past at McGill – in the 1980s, the University divested from the South African apartheid government after pressure from students, and has since divested from tobacco and Burma.

“Divestment is a tactic which is supporting work being done in a climate justice movement,” Divest McGill member Kristen Perry told The Daily. “Divestment is just one part of a larger campaign to just shift the weight from fossil fuel extraction and burning,” she added.

“A major motivator for us is making sure that we can reduce climate change as much as possible and the effects of it […] and to [keep the world] at a climate that we can live in,” Perry said.

Perry added that although “climate change affects everyone,” Indigenous people are the ones who are most touched by it in Canada. “Extraction projects in particular really affect the Indigenous populations where the tar sands and pipelines are basically on their lands. They are most affected [by climate change]. They are in the area where they’re extracting fossil fuels.”

“A large goal of our campaign is to create a dialogue, so even if the University doesn’t divest, we have succeeded in already creating a dialogue,” said Perry.

“Contrary to what the Board said, fossil fuel companies do not promote or encourage alternative energy outside of a strictly [public relations] agenda. There are court findings of social injury against fossil fuel companies; […] there are significant environmental and health impacts associated with the tar sands and climate change.”

Robin Reid-Fraser, past SSMU VP External and current Divest McGill member, noted that students’ relationships to their universities give them a voice in these kinds of decisions. “[Divestment campaigns] call attention to the financial dealings of the University, which otherwise are not often examined or questioned, and then [create] a space for students to demand a say in those financial decisions which are usually left up to more removed bodies like McGill’s Board of Governors.”

“I think that this also creates an interesting situation in which students who may not yet have their own financial investment decisions to make, or involvement in other institutions that do, can use their relationship to their universities to have a voice in these kinds of decisions.”

In an earlier version of this article, The Daily quoted Kristen Perry as saying that Divest McGill was preparing a response to CAMSR that would state the reasons against divestment. In fact, Perry said that Divest McGill’s response would address the reasons. The Daily regrets the error.