Friday, September 23, marked the first of three open forum meetings that invited members of the McGill community to discuss sustainability at McGill. According to the event page on Facebook, the main goal of these forums was to “[create] a ‘comprehensive climate action plan’ in order to reduce McGill’s own carbon footprint while expanding initiatives in sustainability research and education” and “[develop] concrete measures to ensure our investments comply with recognized Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles.” Friday’s meeting was held in the Moot Court at New Chancellor Day Hall.
Many members of the University’s faculty and administration, including Principal Suzanne Fortier, attended the event. As the opening remarks began, members of the student climate justice group Divest McGill arrived.
The event began with some brief remarks from Frédéric Bachand, associate professor of law at McGill and co-chair of the forum, on the context and parameters of the discussion at hand.
“McGill accepts that not only more can be done, but that more should be done, and this is why we are gathered here today,” Bachand said.
Bachand briefly reviewed the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) report from March 2016 which dismissed Divest McGill’s request that the University divest from the fossil fuel industry. This report led to the Board of Governors’ decision to vote against divestment.
“McGill accepts that not only more can be done, but that more should be done, and this is why we are gathered here today.”
Notably, the release of the CAMSR report and the decision against divestment led to Divest McGill’s 72-hour sit-in from March 29 to April 1 in the reception area outside Fortier’s office in the James Administration building. During this time, the group demanded three things from McGill: public consultation on divestment, the release of the expert testimonies on which the CAMSR report had been based, and an acknowledgement from Fortier that the fossil fuel industry causes grave social injury.
Although Fortier has not acknowledged that fossil fuel industry causes grave social injury, the open forums on sustainability represented the administration’s response to Divest’s first demand. The forums were ostensibly designed to provide a space for members of the McGill community to voice their concerns and ideas regarding sustainability, and to have those statements acknowledged in an official setting.
At Friday’s forum, suggestions were made to implement sustainable practices including composting on campus, e-conferences to lower the carbon emissions incurred through travel, and to improve the efficiency of pre-existing structures such as the heating and cooling systems in university buildings.
Speakers also discussed the need for action at the institutional and individual levels, cited examples of social injury caused by the fossil fuel industry, and expressed their disappointment in the controversial CAMSR report.
“I cannot believe that that’s the message the university wants to convey about this problem,” said Richard Janda, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law and a supporter of divestment. “I don’t think [CAMSR] fulfilled its mandate according to its terms. I don’t think the committee did the job that it was supposed to do.” This was met with a large amount of applause.
“I don’t think [CAMSR] fulfilled its mandate according to its terms. I don’t think the committee did the job that it was supposed to do.”
Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, a U2 Management student and member of the Gitxsan Nation, spoke to the audience about the harm inflicted on his family and community by pipeline projects, as well as the broader impact of the fossil fuel industry on Indigenous peoples.
“It’s not just a climate change issue, it is a social issue,” he said. “It’s sickening to me, the tactics that pipeline companies will use to get chiefs to sign on. All of the chiefs I know have lived in poverty. It’s tough to not take the deal, […] to not take the money.”
“Pipelines represent a huge threat to our rivers and way of life […] These companies have a major impact on our lives already, and it’s not some distant thing in the future,” he said. “If McGill is serious about respecting Indigenous rights, then they need to divest and take greater action against climate change.”
“Pipelines represent a huge threat to our rivers and way of life […] These companies have a major impact on our lives already, and it’s not some distant thing in the future. If McGill is serious about respecting Indigenous rights, then they need to divest and take greater action against climate change.”
Julia, a member of Divest and International Development student at McGill, directed her statement towards Fortier. She described a conversation held between Fortier and some members of Divest during the sit-in where Fortier was asked about the legality of the actions of oil companies. According to Julia, the principal responded, “‘Well, I mean, maybe they break the law sometimes, but don’t we all break the law?’”
“I’m tired of it all being on us and there being no accountability for our leaders in the name of things like gradual change and individual action. I think we are long past that point and we need institutional action,” she continued. “I honestly want you [Fortier] to see things from our perspective, because when we are getting that message […] that there is immunity for those people at the upper echelons of society, it is the most disheartening thing for a university student.”
“I honestly want you [Fortier] to see things from our perspective, because when we are getting that message […] that there is immunity for those people at the upper echelons of society, it is the most disheartening thing for a university student.”
Principal Fortier responded by saying, “I also am a human being who knows that while all of us would like to be perfect, and would like to strive for perfection in everything we do, most of us have not succeeded in that. […] We need to strive for doing better; perfection is very hard to achieve, and that means as human beings, sometimes we have to accept that. That’s the context in which I made that comment.”
When asked whether he believes McGill will take concrete action following the forum, Josh Spencer, a recent graduate from McGill’s International Management program, told The Daily, “If pressure stops, if pressure from Divest and the greater McGill community de-escalates or ceases – there’s no chance, in my opinion, of McGill or the administration divesting or of following through with turning these forums and these concerns into concrete action.”