For nearly four years, Divest McGill has been campaigning for McGill University to withdraw the over $70 million it has invested in the fossil fuel industry. This initiative, led by student activists on campus, has been part of an international student movement aimed at removing the social license of the fossil fuel industry.
With over 2500 signatories on the petition for fossil fuel divestment, over 160 professors and nearly 400 alumni signing letters of support, endorsements from several student groups and unions, and overwhelming majorities in favour of divestment from every formal McGill body that has voted on the question –from student associations to departments to entire faculties–, it is clear that Divest McGill has tremendous support from almost every part of the university. Yet we still have to ask ourselves: when will the McGill administration start supporting the community? They tell us that they are listening, but that means very little until they begin aligning their actions with their empty claims.
After years of engagement with administration, campaigning, and creating a space for the sometimes difficult dialogue on the issue of climate justice across campus, we, as members of Divest McGill, would have hoped that the Board would at least bring divestment to the table for a vote. However, in March of this year, the Board’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) instead circumvented the entire question of divestment by claiming that fossil fuel corporations do not cause “grave injurious impact,” and thus no remedial action is warranted.
They claimed incorrectly that climate change is not “grave” enough to merit action until we have hit 2°C of global warming, even though the U.N. recognizes that concerted action must be taken now to aim for 1.5°C of warming, if we want to avoid devastating impacts such as the complete submersion of the Pacific Islands and coastal areas. The University has also completely ignored every point regarding the rights of communities and Indigenous peoples, that was covered in the over 150 page research brief on social injury that we submitted to the Board.
This result shows that the Board is not only ignoring community calls for divestment, but also basic scientific consensus and common knowledge on the serious negative impacts of fossil fuel extraction and climate change that we are already seeing across the world. It shows us that our Board of Governors endorses environmental destruction and the violation of human rights to the point where they feel justified in continuing to invest over $70 million of our university’s money into companies perpetrating these very crimes, even while their lack of fiscal and social responsibility has lost the university over $43 million since Divest began campaigning.
Last week, during Fossil Free Week, Divest McGill hosted a variety of events aiming to propel and aggregate conversations around the issues of climate change and divestment. Several events were specifically based around social injury, with frontline activists and Indigenous land defenders addressing the ways in which they are currently experiencing social injury as a result of the activities of fossil fuel companies.
Fossil Free Week was a set of events that resonate with our aspirations for our prestigious university. Positive change is constantly driven by students at McGill, because we want to be part of an institution that is helping to create the future we want to live in. We aren’t afraid of identifying McGill’s failings. That’s why Divest McGill has continued to persevere in reaching out to the administration and pushing them to stand up for justice.
During our sit-in at Principal Fortier’s office in the spring, the administration bafflingly refused to make a statement affirming that fossil fuels do indeed cause social injury. However, they did commit to holding open forums regarding climate action and ethical investing at McGill. Although this commitment is a small step in the right direction, words are not enough to counter the global ecological and social threats that we are collectively facing.
The three forums empowered the community to speak out and share their personal experiences and thoughts about sustainability at McGill. Despite the broad scope of the forums, it was encouraging and energizing to see nearly every speaker expressing their passion for divestment as a central and necessary part of any legitimate climate action plan. While certain administrators, including Principal Fortier and Board Chairperson Stuart Cobbett, have tried to shift the responsibility for climate change onto individuals in order to absolve McGill of moral culpability, many community members spoke out about the need to go beyond individual actions in addressing the climate crisis. As a respected international institution, McGill has a great deal of power and leverage, which it could use to catalyze positive changes that we cannot accomplish alone.
Another common theme of the forums was the rejection of CAMSR’s verdict that fossil fuel companies do not cause grave social injury. Students spoke out about how intimidation, coercion, and projects of pipeline and fossil fuel companies are directly affecting their livelihoods, communities, and the land. They stated that if McGill truly seeks to strive for reconciliation, it must cease its investment in this destructive industry. Professors spoke about the millions of lives already lost to climate change, and staff addressed the role of the CAMSR decision in deepening the lack of trust in the McGill Board and administration.
For these forums to have been worth anything, the few McGill administrators who were present should have not only been actively listening to the initiatives being brought forward by the community, but must now follow through with active support for them. We cannot afford to continue with business as usual in the face of the climate crisis. Community members will continue to come together to have our voices heard and to take action for climate justice at McGill and beyond.
Ultimately, building a school that we can be proud of will require us to come together to craft solutions and to push for more accountability from the people who are supposed to govern this institution. Whatever results from these forums, one thing is certain: Divest won’t rest. Join us.