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“The two main goals [of ECOLE] are to be a model for sustainable living, and […] to serve as a catalyst for a surviving, connected community for sustainability that integrates community outreach, sustainable living, and equity.”
Sustainability at McGill faced advances and setbacks this year. On the positive side, two important sustainability projects were approved by the University, Vision 2020, and the Education Community Living Environment (ECOLE) project. Vision 2020, which seeks to create a long-term sustainability plan for the McGill community, was approved on March 21.
The ECOLE project, also approved in the Winter semester, aims to create a sustainability hub in the Milton-Parc community and a model for sustainable living. The ECOLE project will operate in a house off-campus, and see 8 to 12 students live there while completing an independent study project. These student residents will receive subsidized rent and academic credit for their independent study. ECOLE will launch its pilot year in September 2014.
However, sustainability on campus also took a hit when SSMU abruptly lost the position of Sustainability Coordinator. The position which entailed working to align the activities of SSMU with a culture of sustainability, was ended in the Fall semester. Since then there has been little movement from SSMU to create a new position.
As per a motion passed at the SSMU Winter General Assembly (GA), the Ad-hoc Committee on Sustainability will make an “actionable recommendation” for sustainability at SSMU by the end of the Winter 2014 semester. After the recommendation is made, it will be the job of the President and executive to look into the feasibility of the proposal and steps for implementation, and an update will then be brought forward to the Fall 2014 GA. As such, much of the work to implement sustainability on campus remains to be seen in the next academic year.
“If this isn’t social injury, then McGill needs a new definition.”
Divest McGill was created in 2012 to campaign for divestment from University holdings in the fossil fuel industry. In February 2013, the group submitted two petitions to McGill’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR). The petitions – one seeking McGill’s divestment from the tar sands and fossil fuel industry, and the other seeking divestment from companies associated with the Nord pour tous (formerly known as Plan Nord), a natural resource exploitation project started under former premier Jean Charest – gained momentum, with support from McGill student unions, as well as numerous climate justice advocacy groups across the city.
In May 2013, McGill’s Board of Governors rejected both petitions that Divest McGill submitted. The decision was based on recommendations from CAMSR that indicated that the petitions failed to prove “social injury” had occurred under CAMSR’s Terms of Reference – that is, their mandate and guidelines for reviewing the social responsibility of the University’s investments.
Divest McGill continues to be very active working with other climate justice advocacy groups and Indigenous communities who are also opposed to fossil fuel and tar sands extraction in Canada, and raising awareness on campus. This year, the group held workshops, organized a bike protest, and spoke out against the Petrocultures conference hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Divest McGill acted, and will continue to act, as a key player in increasing the pressure on McGill to divest from fossil fuels and become a leader in ethical investments among universities worldwide.
—E.k. Chan and Hera Chan
“It is important to break [the invisibility of equity issues] down. We have to be intentional about it and actually make changes and work against it.”
Equity was a buzzword on McGill’s campus this year, at times due to missteps by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executive and staff. During the first semester, the SSMU executive was met with criticism for its Costume Campaign, which intended to educate students on culturally appropriative costumes, but used posters featuring people wearing the sort of costumes SSMU sought to ban.
Despite both the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) Equity Committee and SSMU Equity Committee holding forums on the subject in the second semester, the issue of equity at McGill seemed to become larger than life following a complaint filed toward SSMU VP Internal Brian Farnan over a GIF of Barack Obama included in a SSMU listserv email. Part of the Equity Commission’s ruling in the complainant’s favour was that Farnan would issue a public apology – an apology that took a life of its own, attracting international media attention. Back on campus, SSMU eventually decided to retract the decision to make the apology public at a Council meeting, on “the basis that the apology trivializes the legitimacy of equity and racism on campus,” according to the motion moved.
Efforts by the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) to create a more equitable environment were positive, but flew under the radar for many students. Christopher Tegho, who was appointed Equity Commissioner for EUS in October, worked to educate engineering students on the meaning of equity, rape culture, and safer space through workshops held in the Winter semester. The workshops, held in a mandatory first year course for Engineering students, broke down such concepts for students, many of whom were hearing of them for the first time – a phenomenon that is all-too common at McGill.
“[The] industry went on a mission to developing countries to get them to use chrysotile asbestos.”
McGill attempted to address accusations of research misconduct in October 2013, when it hosted a conference on asbestos that included panels and discussions about research ethics and asbestos. The University found itself involved in a long-running academic dispute surrounding the work of Professor John Corbett McDonald, who undertook research in the 1960s and 1970s on the health impacts of chrysotile asbestos. His work demonstrated that the use of this asbestos was safe in controlled circumstances; however, McDonald received direct funding from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, “an [asbestos] industry-funded body.”
Starting in 2002, numerous scientists began lodging complaints with McGill over the methodology of the research, with some claiming that data had been chosen selectively to give the result desired by industry, and to green-light the commercial exploitation of a cancerous substance.
In response to mounting criticism, the University hosted a day-long conference focused on both asbestos and academic research ethics. Yet while most people at the conference agreed that McGill needed greater ethical oversight in research, no solution was put on the table for discussion, and critics – notably Kathleen Ruff and David Egilman – argued that hosting a conference was not enough and that McGill needed to decide on an ethics policy and retract the study.
Rejection of McDonald’s findings are almost unanimous within the scientific community; however, McGill still refuses to completely retract the paper. To date, critics maintain that the asbestos industry uses McDonald’s findings as evidence for the harmlessness of the substance. This is particularly true in developing countries. The Brazilian government’s position, for example, is that chrysotile asbestos is harmless; this view is based on McDonald’s findings. All that needs to happen to stop the sale of harmful chrysotile asbestos around the world, according to critics, is for McGill to denounce McDonald’s research.
“[We should protest] until it is taken seriously by the government [and] they actually put some effort [into] helping these Indigenous women.”
Every year, Montrealers take to the streets calling for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. This February, Missing Justice, an Indigenous solidarity collective, organized the annual march, which saw over 500 protesters participate in the march, higher than all previous marches.
Despite the fact that the march has occurred annually for years now, the response from the government continues to be lacking. Even after years of demands for a formal inquiry into the issue, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government have refused to heed the demands to hold a national inquiry.
Public attention was once again drawn to the issue after the murder of Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman. In March, to coincide with International Women’s Day, Mohawks blocked CN rail lines in Tyendinaga in a plea for a national inquiry into the issue. Despite all of this initiative, the government is unwilling to take any action.
“You reach a point where you realize that there is a huge power differential between SSMU and McGill, and no matter what, we are going to be in this building and they are pretty much setting the terms of the negotiation.”
It appears that the tipping point that Shea mentions in the above quote has come to pass. After several years of negotiations, SSMU has signed a ten-year lease with McGill for the use of the Shatner building. The newly-signed lease will take effect retroactively, beginning in the 2011-12 school year – the most recent SSMU lease expired in 2011 – and the lease will be in effect until 2020-21.
Lease negotiations have raised financial concerns for three cycles of SSMU executives. At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, McGill announced that it would no longer pay the entirety of the utilities cost for the Shatner building, and the lease, signed earlier this month, is the first indication of what this means for SSMU. For the 2013-14 year, SSMU will pay an increased rent of $130,000, as well as $100,000 in energy costs. Both rent and utility costs will increase yearly; rent will increase by $5,000 a year for the next seven years, and utility costs will increase with inflation.
In an effort to mitigate the negative financial impacts of these steep rent increases (compare the total $230,000 to be paid out this year to the $110,000 paid in 2010-11 under the previous lease), the SSMU executive attempted to pass a referendum question regarding a Shatner building fee in the Winter referendum period. This question failed to pass, with many questioning the executives’ lack of advertisement of or emphasis on the fee’s importance. Some have also questioned the executives’ role in negotiating a lease that places such a high financial burden on the Society. The building fee may be proposed again in a referendum in the Fall 2014 semester.