On February 27, McGill Communications announced in an email to the McGill community that some members of the Board of Governors (BoG) had requested to pass a motion on the question of divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The BoG is now undertaking consultations with the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) and the Investment Committee to determine whether the university should reconsider its position on divestment. This decision was made in a meeting on February 8 but was “inadvertently omitted” from the meeting highlights, according to the email.
For years, students and faculty have been calling on McGill to divest. In 2022, health care students and professionals penned an open letter to the BoG calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies and for democratization of the BoG; it was signed by organizations such as McGill Nurses for Planetary Health, the Nursing Undergraduate Society, the Nursing Graduate Student Association. On March 13 of this year, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) passed a motion to formally endorse this call to action. SSMU has also passed a motion to “ensure that the SSMU executives are actively advocating for divestment and demilitarisation” in their dealings with both the student body and the BoG. And of course, Divest McGill has been advocating for divestment since 2012, including organizing the longest occupation of a university building in McGill’s history, which took place last year.
As of November 2021, McGill has invested more than $65 million in oil and gas companies, about 5.4 per cent of the university’s total endowment. CAMSR previously considered the possibility of divestment in 2013, 2016, and 2019. The committee’s 2019 discussion came after the Senate passed a motion in September 2018 informing the BoG that they favoured divestment from fossil fuels. Ultimately, they advised the Board not to divest and instead recommended decarbonization and impact investment. Decarbonization involves McGill reducing its investments in industries with high carbon emissions, while impact investment means specifically investing in funds that would generate a positive social or environmental impact, such as in low-carbon or renewable energy funds. At the end of the day, both recommendations still involve McGill allocating some of its investments towards the fossil fuel industry. McGill’s decision to pursue decarbonization and impact investment rather than divestment received backlash from student advocacy groups such as Divest McGill and Greenpeace McGill. It also prompted Greg Mikkelson, a professor of philosophy and environment who’d taught at McGill for 18 years, to resign. “While divestment would have been a clear and courageous move to make, this de-carbonization concept is complex and confusing,” Mikkelson explained.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2022 report found that the next few years will be critical in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. McGill aims to be carbon-neutral by 2040, but its efforts to do so have been feeble at best. The problem with McGill’s decarbonization effort is that they focus on reducing the university’s investments in oil and gas, or shifting investments within this industry, rather than getting rid of them entirely. If McGill wishes to continue impact investing, it must occur in tandem with divestment. Even so, while impact investing might appear effective on paper, research has shown that it doesn’t tend to work in practice. Reducing McGill’s carbon footprint by impact investing, without divestment, is insufficient because it is often difficult for investors to determine which businesses actually have positive environmental impacts. If McGill truly wants to address the climate catastrophe and be a “leader in sustainability,” it must divest its money from all companies in the fossil fuel industry. Many companies that McGill currently invests in have been directly linked to environmental degradation, with Suncor responsible for polluting waterways and Canadian Natural Resources Limited responsible for oil spills.
Furthermore, McGill’s investments in fossil fuels are contradictory to the university’s supposed commitment to Indigenous reconciliation. For example, as of December 2022, McGill invested $2,610,419 in TC Energy, the company responsible for the Coastal GasLink and Keystone XL pipeline projects, both of which attempted to cut through Indigenous territories, including those home to the Wet’suwet’en and the Great Sioux Nation, without consent. TC Energy pressured the RCMP to conduct raids on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory to criminalize Indigenous land defenders blocking the pipeline’s construction, a move condemned by Amnesty International.
In a 2020 interview, former Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier argued that divestment is an ineffective “symbolic gesture.” It would send an important message if McGill, one of the most prestigious universities in Canada, were to openly condemn the fossil fuel industry. Conversely, continuing to invest in fossil fuels shows that the BoG is willing to support the expansion of an industry that profits from environmental degradation and violates Indigenous sovereignty.
As CAMSR continues to deliberate on the question of divestment, it is crucial that students, professors, and other members of the McGill community make their voices heard to the committee by sending their concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. As the university’s highest governing body, only eight of the 25 members of the BoG are elected by the McGill community. Following Mikkelson’s words, “In order to divest McGill, we have to democratize McGill,” participate in future actions calling for the democratization of the BoG. Support Divest McGill and other groups advocating for divestment and engage in actions at McGill or around Montreal demanding climate justice. It’s also crucial if you are a settler to show solidarity with Indigenous land defenders who are often on the frontlines of the fight against fossil fuel companies. This can involve showing solidarity with actions in your area, educating yourself and others (the documentary Invasion about the Unist’ot’en Campis a good place to start), or donating to a legal defence fund supporting land defenders.