Divest McGill urging the University to "break up with fossil fuels" in February 2013.

Commentary  Progress and disappointment

Reflecting on 1,000 days of activism and obstruction

Dear members of the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility,

October 29 marked the 1,000th day since we at Divest McGill submitted our initial petition to you. Many people have invested a lot of work, time, and energy into our divestment campaign, and I’m used to Divest McGill’s typical letter-drafting process of discussion, collective drafting and editing, and approval by consensus. Today, however, I am writing to you only my own behalf, and sharing my own personal experiences.

I still remember the day when I walked into the small boardroom on the third floor of the James Administration building with some of my newfound friends to present the case for divestment for the very first time – some of you were there, and you might have noticed that 19-year-old me was slightly terrified. But you put me at ease; you were friendly and seemed happy to engage with students, and I came out of that brief presentation feeling optimistic, thinking that perhaps a small but motivated group of students really could help McGill make the important decision to align its investments with its values. I thought that perhaps the process would be swift, since full divestment was the only logical response. Sometimes I am still surprised that the right decision was not made the first time around.

Since then, your committee – affectionately known as CAMSR – has had a surprisingly enduring presence in my life, through our correspondence, your terms of reference consultations, and of course our many meetings. I even spent my 22nd birthday with you last month! And so it is in the context of this long and complicated relationship that I reflect on the Divest McGill campaign before I graduate.

About two years ago, I joked to my mother that I couldn’t graduate until McGill divested.

Ours was the very first fossil fuel divestment campaign in Canada, launching this call for climate leadership and climate justice even before the worldwide campaign began. I am astounded with every new campaign and every new victory that I see; when Divest McGill began, I could never have imagined that only a few years later there would be more than 800 campaigns across the globe, and that 470 institutions worth more than $2.6 trillion dollars would have already committed to divestment. But whenever I see another victory, my excitement is bittersweet, tinged with a streak of deep disappointment. Because it reminds me that although the students at McGill have continued to lead the divestment movement, our own institution, McGill University, still has not acted in the interests of the campus and the global community.

The reason that I became an activist is because I have compassion – for the planet, for people (especially those on the front lines of climate change and resource exploitation), and for all life on earth. And I’ve come to realize that when confronted with suffering, we must respond actively, because passivity, inaction, and delay equate to complicity. We must ask ourselves: how can we avoid aggravating the problem, help to alleviate it, and demonstrate our material support for those who are already addressing the problem? What power do we have, individually and collectively, to bring about social and environmental justice? I ask myself that regularly, and I invite you to do the same.

In attempting to answer those questions throughout my time at McGill, I have invested incredible effort into contributing to the campus community – from spending several hours a week organizing for divestment and climate justice, to educating students on green living and larger environmental issues, to facilitating community spaces and conversations about how McGill can be more sustainable. And I have seen so many others working very hard to do the same; indeed, these individuals have become some of my very best friends, and I have come to consider this community to be my family. When I graduate, I hope to continue my involvement in the wonderful and growing sustainability community in which I have had the privilege to participate here.

You have all of the information, you certainly have the support, and you have taken more than enough time; now all that is needed is courage.

About two years ago, I joked to my mother that I couldn’t graduate until McGill divested – back then, I was sure we would have divested well before 2016. But now I know that even if I were to leave, the campaign would remain stronger than ever, because there are so many incredible individuals doing this work, and more are joining us every day. And with the launch of our alumni campaign, I would be proud to join the growing ranks of the 200 alumni calling on McGill to do the right thing. It is especially exciting to know that the vast majority of these individuals have pledged not to donate until they know that their money will not be invested in fossil fuels, and as I write this forty alumni have declared that they will publicly return their diplomas if McGill does not divest. Given my devotion to the McGill community, perhaps it seems odd for me to want to support this sort of action, but it is precisely this devotion that compels me to do so. After 1,000 days of failure to act from McGill, this sort of tough love is necessary. I promise to continue doing everything I can to ensure that McGill’s investments come to reflect the good that I know my university is capable of, and I know that many others will as well. But we cannot do it without you.

I understand that we might not see the world, or the dire problem of climate change, in exactly the same way. However, I am certain that we all care deeply about this university and want McGill to positively influence the world around it. There are so many ways to do this, and divestment is only one of them – but it is undoubtedly a crucial and effective step. You have all of the information, you certainly have the support, and you have taken more than enough time; now all that is needed is courage. I urge you to join us – please know that there are thousands of community members who are ready to stand with you if you choose to support full fossil fuel divestment. And from my experience, they are a loving, powerful, and wonderful group of individuals that I would always choose to have on my side.

Kristen Perry is a U4 Environment student and a Divest McGill organizer. This letter is an edited version of one sent to members of the McGill Board of Governors.