Commentary  Demanding action for climate justice

Why we set up camp at Community Square

If you haven’t already, you will probably notice the cluster of tents pitched in front of the James Administration building this week – a sea of colourful banners, orange t-shirts, and energetic community members. Allow us to introduce ourselves.

We are members of Divest McGill, and we’re here as part of our Fossil Free Week. We are students and faculty from departments across the university; we come from different backgrounds, have varied fields of study, and range widely in our experiences with activism. What has brought us together is a common recognition of the serious threat posed by climate change, and of our collective responsibility to act. As members of the McGill community and individuals living in an era of unprecedented environmental and social challenges, we are united in demanding that this institution act boldly in the face of the climate crisis.

Students, faculty, and alumni at McGill University have been campaigning for fossil fuel divestment for nearly three years. In February of this year, we submitted a second petition and research brief to the Board of Governors, signed by more than 1,700 McGill community members and endorsed by an open letter from over 120 McGill faculty and librarians. By withdrawing investments from fossil fuel companies, McGill would join over 400 other institutions worldwide in helping to stigmatize the industry’s immoral business plan and its corrupting influence on public policy.

Six months after our second submission, the Board has provided no indication of how it plans to proceed, despite repeated calls for transparency and timeliness in addressing this issue. It is in light of these delays that we are spending our nights sleeping in Community Square, in front of the James Administration building, calling on the Board to immediately freeze all new investments in fossil fuels while its members deliberate on full divestment. The McGill community needs more than just words from Board members to demonstrate that they are acting in good faith and considering the question of divestment with the seriousness it deserves.

By acknowledging the climate science, but refusing to accept its clear implications, the Board is displaying a dangerous type of wilful ignorance that calls the efficacy of its governance seriously into question.

Following in the footsteps of a long history of social movements, we are pushing the bounds of our comfort zones, and respectfully but firmly showing the Board that the climate movement is here to stay, and only getting stronger. We are doing so to challenge the decision-makers to act – to make a decision that will place McGill on the right side of history. We know that the climate crisis cannot wait for the kind of delay that the Board is epitomizing with almost three years of deliberation. And we know that to overcome the status quo at McGill, and in society at large, we need to continue building a strong movement for climate justice.

Today, September 21, marks the one-year anniversary of the People’s Climate March. In 2014, we saw countless people taking part in over 5,000 different events in 190 countries around the world. The largest, in New York City, brought out over 400,000 people to march to demand action on climate change, and here in Montreal, thousands came out despite the rain. Perhaps the most notable and resounding success of these marches was their explicit effort to highlight the intersectionality of environmental, social, and economic justice. Frontline communities, faith-based organizations, labour unions, youth, working people, and marginalized peoples across the planet are building strong and resilient movements that can join together to overcome the many challenges faced by our communities, and many groups and individuals are working to do the same at McGill.

Here, we are taking action together because we care about keeping our communities and our environment safe – but it’s about so much more than that. We are camping out because we have seen fossil fuel companies violate Indigenous rights for decades. We are camping out because international climate negotiations have failed to produce meaningful outcomes for longer than some of us have been alive. We are camping out because we have seen poor and marginalized communities suffer the most from climate catastrophes while contributing least to the problem. We are camping out because we know that fossil fuel emissions are detrimental to our health. Ultimately, we are camping out because we, as members of the McGill community, know that McGill can do so much better.

McGill might be ranked as the best university in Canada, but does that alone make it an educational institution that we should be proud of? By not divesting, McGill is ignoring its own scientists and researchers who have highlighted the dire nature of the climate crisis and the need to freeze tar sand expansion. It is clear that our university’s Board of Governors is not acting in line with the urgency that this crisis merits, nor the transparency that the community deserves. By acknowledging the climate science, but refusing to accept its clear implications, the Board is displaying a dangerous type of wilful ignorance that calls the efficacy of its governance seriously into question. The scientific analysis and the moral imperative are both resoundingly clear: full fossil fuel divestment is the bare minimum of what must be done.

So, we are camping out, and we invite you to join us. It’s time that the McGill administration stood with the community, instead of with fossil fuel corporations.

The following members of Divest McGill signed on to this article: Emily Boytinck, Joey Broda, Julianna Duholke, Ellen Gillies, Victor Frankel, Sarah Mitchell, Chloé Laflamme, Kristen Perry, Sam Quigley.

To contact Divest McGill, email Fossil Free Week events will be held in Community Square from September 21 to 25. See for the full schedule.