On February 8, at the Board of Governors (BoG) meeting, several Governors asked the Board to pass a motion on the question of divestment from the fossil fuel industry. For over ten years, McGill community members have been calling for action from the Board and its Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) to divest from fossil fuels, citing the urgency of the climate crisis, and more recently, the commitments of various Canadian and American universities to fully divest from fossil fuels.
Following the CAMSR’s meeting on March 16, the Board’s decision on the question of accelerating a review of its current socially responsible investment (SRI) practices will take place on April 20. If current plans are kept in place, any changes to the university’s position on divestment will not come until the spring of 2025.
For students who have been involved in the fight for divestment, the days leading up to April 20 are crucial. Alex Foster, a member of Divest McGill, told the Daily that “this is kind of the last chance for divestment for a while,” which places pressure on Divest to convince the board to take action now. “It feels pretty urgent… having these reconsiderations out of nowhere,” says Foster.
Divest members participated in the Board’s community session at their February 8 meeting and handed out flyers to Board members beforehand that laid out the importance of institutional divestment and its implications for climate policy, the environmental consequences of not divesting, and financial arguments for divesting. “As we arrived at the community session, [a Board member] said that they were just having a heated discussion about divestment before we got there,” Foster told the Daily. “It’s good if it’s heated because it means there are people who are passionate on the Board in one way or another.”
The last time that the Board considered the question of divestment was during a two-year review period between 2018-2020. This review resulted in the implementation of a plan to decarbonize the university’s endowment fund through a “prudent yet ambitious strategy that includes divestment from highly carbon-intensive companies, including those within the fossil fuel industry,” according to an email sent from McGill Communications on February 27.
In a question addressed to the Board, a community member noted that McGill is the only major university in Montreal that has not announced a commitment to divestment. They also listed a number of major universities that have committed to total divestment from the fossil fuel industry, including Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Toronto. Indeed, over 100 US schools and ten Canadian schools have made partial or full commitments to divest from fossil fuels, which advocates of divestment at McGill see as a clear indicator of the university falling behind in terms of its commitment to sustainability. Foster sees the rising number of universities committing to divestment as a hopeful point toward convincing the Board to follow suit – “it’s different now that universities like [University of Toronto] and prestigious American universities [have divested]. Now that it’s coming closer and closer to home – I think that’s what matters to them.”
The April 2023 announcement has presented a crucial opportunity for Divest to take action, calling for changes in campaigning and messaging. A principle argument that Divest and other proponents of divestment have used relates to the term “social injury,” which is listed in the CAMSR’s mandate as “the grave injurious impact which the activities of a legal person is found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, or on the natural environment.” The CAMSR has denied a finding of social injury based on their investments in fossil fuels, which would be required for their official divestment. Considering Divest has focused on this argument in the past, Foster says that the campaign may need to change strategies to achieve its goals. “[The Board] had no discussion of social injury in their report. That’s not really what they were looking at,” she told the Daily. Based on the Board’s lack of acknowledgment of social injury in the past and focus on financial consequences instead, “even if they change [their] mind now, nothing has changed in terms of social injury — that would show that it’s not about social injury.”
Instead, Divest is beginning to look toward potential financial gains that may come from divesting from fossil fuels to support its campaign. Taichi Saito, another member of Divest, spoke on Divest’s potential shifts in strategy to target the Board’s interests: “there is more and more research about the financial aspect of divestment, so we plan on talking to management professors,” he told the Daily. “There’s been a lot of improvement in renewable energy sources and technologies such as solar panels in the last decade… We often hear arguments about how Canada has a lot of oil and gas in its territory, but I think the faster we stop exploiting these resources, the faster we’ll be able to shift towards renewable energies and be independent of oil and gas markets.”
Foster expressed her frustration at the Board’s handling of the session and their general unwillingness to listen to the rest of the McGill community on the matter of divestment: “they’re running out of excuses,” she told the Daily. “After the occupation last year, the realization that the university doesn’t really care about what the students think, and that even if we manage to get the whole student population aware of divestment, it wouldn’t really affect the Board. It’s been a bit disheartening.” Foster references Divest’s occupation of the Arts building last year in support of decolonization, democratization, and divestment. The occupation lasted for over two weeks, making it the longest occupation of a university building in McGill’s history.
For Foster and many other members of the McGill community, the fight for divestment has further revealed the need for a democratization of McGill. “It’s a shame that at this specific moment where they make this decision [about whether to divest], it will be equally influenced by Board members or other universities [placing pressure on McGill to follow suit]. If the union was democratic, we would have divested already because the Senate and the students have already voted for it,” she told the Daily.
“The fundamental problem of the university being undemocratic and not caring about what the students or staff want — that will just keep coming up again and again, whether it’s divestment or not,” Foster added.
Regardless of the decision that is made on April 20, there is still a long way to go for Divest and other student movements that have been a part of efforts to divest. Foster notes that even if McGill commits to partial or total divestment in its endowment fund, it will likely continue to fund fossil fuel companies through its pooled funds. “McGill needs to divest from ‘actual’ fossil fuel companies, but [a large proportion of] McGill’s investments go into pooled funds, which have loads of problems on their own. That’s a whole other avenue for Divest to go down,” says Foster. “Divest will still need to exist – it just might not look the same as it did before.”