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Letter: The Latest Sustainability Report Released by the Board of Governors Shows Need for a Democratic University

In December 2022, the Board of Governors (BoG) held a meeting about their latest report on “socially responsible investing.” It detailed how the Board succeeded in attaining and even surpassing eight recommendations pertaining to sustainability. However, this could not be farther from the truth, not to mention that this same report was created to quell the wave of fury from the McGill community following the BoG’s refusal to divest in December 2019. It was the third time in seven years. While being an outrageous act in the wake of cascading climate events in and of itself, it is but a symptom of the bigger problem of having an undemocratic body governing the whole university.

The Eight Recommendations and the Reality

Created by the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), these recommendations have never been anything more than filler corporate jargon intended to greenwash McGill’s public image for the benefit of profiting off of crises, including the climate crisis. Delay is the word. Here we outline our report —the more truthful version — on McGill’s progress to achieve the eight  recommendations contained in the CAMSR Report to the BoG:

1. Reduce Carbon Emissions

In pursuing decarbonization alone, McGill fails to take action against the companies doing the most damage to the climate and inflicting violence against Indigenous peoples, therefore remaining complicit in these activities. Decarbonization does not address the upstream sources of fossil fuels and emissions. Decarbonization describes efforts to reduce the carbon intensity of McGill’s endowment. No one opposes a reduction of the investment footprint, but that is insufficient on account of its failure to take a stance at a time when action is essential. It therefore does not address the root of the problem: the continued extraction, proliferation, and dependency on fossil fuels.

2. Invest in Low-Carbon Funds (Impact Investing)

McGill claims to increase investment in low-carbon funds and funds that contribute to decarbonization. However, they hide high-carbon funds by investing in banks such as the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). RBC is Canada’s largest fossil fuel funder and the 5th largest fossil fuel funder in the world, investing more than $262 billion CAD into fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2016. Furthermore, footprint targets are fundamentally inadequate. We cannot prevent catastrophic climate change by only focusing on emitters, or, in other words, the demand for fossil fuels. We have been failing for decades to curb emissions by focusing on a demand that is entrenched across society. It is time to target the supply of fossil fuels by enacting policies that restrict exploration, extraction, distribution, and — in McGill’s case — investment in the industry. Of course, we will also need a fundamental societal change towards renewable energies to reduce the demand and thus stop being at the mercy of oil markets. Footprint targets are complex and uncertain undertakings. They rely on emissions inconsistently reported by companies themselves, with data often missing. The target is forever moving, it has to be tracked indefinitely in a growing economy (a 30 per cent reduction can simply be regained over time).

3. ESG Integration

McGill increased the number of investment managers that have adopted an Environmental, Social, Corporate Governance (ESG) Policy or are signatories of the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment. However, the principles are ‘voluntary and aspirational’ — and they do not have minimum entry requirements or performance standards for responsible investment. Overall, the low-impact investments are valued at $8M CAD as of June 2022. That is less than how much former McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier, was likely paid throughout her tenure as McGill principal.

4. Engagement in SHARE’S UNIE Program

On behalf of the University Network for Investor Engagement (UNIE), SHARE is a company that engages with companies held in university endowments to (superficially) address climate risks. UNIE was created because major universities needed to band together to resist student and faculty divestment demands.

5. Negative Screening

ESG integration does not remove the social license of the fossil fuel industry. For instance, Enbridge and TC Energy, two of Canada’s largest and most violently extractive fossil fuel companies are ranked 14th and 17th out of 201 in terms of ESG risk. You may have heard of TC Energy as the company pushing to construct the Coastal Gas Link pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory without consent from hereditary chiefs (band councils, which were created by the Canadian government to prop up the few Indigenous people who agreed with it, only have jurisdiction on reservations, not on other territories). Enbridge has been in the news for funding police violence (including surveillance, harassment, physical torture, “pain compliance,” trumped-up charges, including felonies, and over 900 total arrests) against water protectors resisting Line 3 and Line 5. Further, companies under evaluation often provide their own figures, and there is no enforceable standard.

6. Present and Publish a Report on Socially Responsible Investing

This goal has been accomplished according to McGill because, in Spring 2022, the Investment Committee presented their 2021 report to the Board of Governors. What is more, the Board of Governors is not designed to respond to legitimate concerns regarding socially irresponsible investing, no matter how many reports they develop. McGill is controlled by senior executives from the Bank of Montreal (BMO), Power Corporation of Canada, the National Bank of Canada, Metro Inc., HSBC Bank Canada, and Redbourne Properties Inc. They all sit on the Board of Governors and represent their single largest voting bloc. They will continue to vote in their own best interests and against ours. In this case, that means maintaining the status quo. They continue to choose the most self-serving, profitable investments regardless of the violent ramifications.

7. SRI Review

Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) policies are non-binding and subject to considerable amounts of variation depending on the industry. Evaluating SRI practices every five years does not level with rapidly unfolding social and ecological crises that result from continued fossil fuel extraction. Further, a review of the current SRI practices has been added to the Board’s calendar of business and is planned to take place in Spring 2025. What happened in the SRI review of Spring 2020 and why didn’t it lead to divestment from fossil fuels, defense contractors, and other harmful industries? Now, we have to wait until Spring 2025 just so a few CEOs can review the practices over coffee in a boardroom again. Coincidentally, according to the IPCC, 2025 is the same year during which global emissions must peak to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming well below 2°C.

8. Institutional Leadership

McGill says they take pride in their sustainability efforts and “leads dialogues” with other corporate bodies. We are not proud that our university contributes to the climate crisis and human rights abuses. This is not climate leadership.

The Board of Governors

The Board of Governors, the highest governing body of McGill, is structured in a fundamentally undemocratic way. It chooses its new members and forms its standing committees, including CAMSR. As of the academic year 2022-2023, 14 out of 25 of its voting members were not elected, but rather nominated. This might seem like an improvement from the previous 17 out of 25, but because the unelected members, who are heads of various corporations, still constitute the majority of the Board, they are able to nominate and instate new members with similar corporate interests regardless of what the elected members decide, thus perpetuating the problem. The vote of the elected members only matters in cases where there is dissent among the unelected members, i.e. for decisions that do not threaten the decisional stranglehold of the unelected members.

Why You Should be Concerned:

You might wonder how this affects you directly. Climate change is akin to a very long train; it is difficult to make it accelerate individually, but it is also very hard to halt its course once it is going. While the situation might seem fine from its inside, the people who are desperately clinging on to it from the outside because they could not afford a ticket are already feeling the worst consequences of the train’s continual release of fumes into the atmosphere.

All of the data shows the negative consequences of a fossil fuel-powered society, yet the BoG refuses to recognize the social and environmental harm its investments in the oil and gas industry cause. These deleterious effects also comprise financial ones, as the disruptions caused by climate change will more negatively affect the economy than a swift transition to renewable energies. The university is thus jeopardizing the future of its students, many of whom come from countries that are already prey to the increasingly frequent and dangerous “once-in-a-lifetime” climate events. While McGill boasts about having achieved its sustainability goals, many other Canadian universities have divested, with the University of Montreal being the latest to follow suit after two students went on a hunger strike until they were hospitalized. We ignore what it would take for the BoG to have a change of heart and if an act of such magnitude would have an effect, but it is undeniable that students should not compromise their health in the hope that their university’s administration stops jeopardizing their long-term well-being.

The matter of divestment is not the only issue on which the BoG is at odds with the majority of students and staff. And it is certainly not the only issue on which it forces its will simply because it can. For instance, one can think of how the university threatened to sanction SSMU after the latter tried to adopt the Palestine Solidarity Policy, which obtained 71 per cent popular support in a referendum in March 2022. Let us not forget that while high-ranking staff in the McGill administration was doing a nice photoshoot last September 30 for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the university was fighting tooth and nail in the courts against the Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) to renovate the New Vic on potential unmarked graves of Indigenous children experimented upon as part of the atrocious CIA Project MKUltra. A hearing which took place on October 26 gathered a great number of supporters for the Mohawk Mothers, many from the McGill community. Thankfully, the Mothers won a temporary injunction, but the situation only goes to show that the McGill administration will only stop in the pursuit of its goals if it is forced to do so by an entity with more power… or if it affects their bottom line. Sooner or later, the BoG’s chickens will come home to roost, as the many scandals surrounding the university dissuade donors from giving to it again, and as the BoG’s blatant disregard for the well-being of its students affects the university’s ranking and enrollment numbers. 

Food insecurity on campus is also an important issue. While global inflation may be at play here, McGill’s responsibility in rising food prices certainly cannot be overlooked. Indeed, per an inquiry with Student Housing and Hospitality Service (SHHS), McGill’s cafeterias have been struggling to turn a profit because they are not subsidized by the administration. We can also blame, among many other things, the latter’s decision to overall and privatize the many student-run cafes since the early aughts and to implement a mandatory meal plan in the undergraduate residences. To go full circle, food insecurity will become even more prevalent as the climate crisis worsens and renders previously arable lands infertile.

In brief, whether you want to buy a protein bar at the cafeteria for less than $5.82 or want to divest from fossil fuels, we have one goal in common: the democratization of the university. Much in the same way that we believe that a democratic government is preferable to an autocratic regime, we believe that the McGill community should have a say in the way the university is run.