The following interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
For Divest McGill, 2023 ended on a positive note. Months of petitions and advocacy efforts led to a pivotal decision by the Board of Governors (BoG) on whether to remove the remaining fossil fuel holdings from the McGill Investment Pool (MIP), which currently account for less than one per cent of the University’s endowment fund. On December 14, the BoG unanimously voted to divest from direct investments in fossil fuel companies of the Carbon Underground 200 (CU200) by 2025. This came days after the COP28 signed an agreement laying the groundwork to phase out fossil fuels.
Between 2019 and 2022, the MIP’s carbon footprint was reduced by 49 per cent. With this announcement, the university entered Phase 2 of its Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) strategy, which aims to reduce its carbon footprint. Currently, the CU200 holdings in the MIP make up only 0.5 per cent of total assets. This new eight-point plan builds on the university’s previous achievements and targets.
The BoG also approved other SRI commitments, including allocating 10 per cent of the MIP to Sustainable Investment Strategies aligned with the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) by 2029, and integrating an Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) scoring system and risk metrics into their fund manager monitoring processes.
This decision culminates 12 years of dedicated efforts by Divest McGill to get the university to divest from fossil fuels. The Daily met with Laura Doyle Péan, a McGill graduate who was part of Divest McGill between 2019 and 2023; and Emily Hardie, a current member, to discuss the implications of this announcement and their next steps moving forward.
India Mosca for The McGill Daily (MD): What significance does the December 14 announcement hold for you and the community of Divest McGill?
Emily Hardie (EH): This is a huge win for our campaign because this has been the main focus, but it’s also a win for the rest of the community, all the students, staff, and faculty that have endorsed divestment for so long now. When I first heard the news, alongside other members of Divest, I was definitely in a state of shock, because this campaign has been running for 11 to 12 years now, and it’s incredible to experience this win within my time at McGill. At the same time, it did take 12 years for the Board to make this decision, which is really unfortunate.
Laura Doyle Péan (LDP): I think for myself, there was a fear that they would change their mind at the last minute. So until it had been officially stated, even if at that point we were expecting it, it was hard to be certain. Even after it had been announced, I think it took a while to digest the news and actually feel the victory, in a sense, and understand that it was real, because the campaign had been going on for so long. But now that the weeks have passed, I think what Emily said as a victory for the community is really true, because it reinforces a great precedent [for] other campaigns that are looking for divestment for human rights. We’ve been part of a coalition with SPHR [Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights] and other groups for a couple of years now, [and they] can use that precedent to get the Board to divest from other companies that are causing human rights abuses.
MD: What made this announcement finally possible?
EH: The recent announcement is due to the work that has been done for the past 12 years, it’s not a decision that’s just been made over the past year. We’ve been in communication with CAMSR [now known as CSSR, the Committee on Sustainability and Social Responsibility], which is a committee on the Board of Governors, and we were invited to do a presentation in September to the Board. I don’t think we would have had the opportunity to do this presentation for them if we hadn’t made a name for ourselves over the course of 12 years. Although the SRI review was supposed to be for next year or the year after that, we accelerated the SRI review in advance, in part due to the presentations and communications that we’ve had with the Board recently.
MD: What do you think the impact of this announcement will be? Do you believe it will influence other universities and the broader movement to divest from fossil fuels?
LDP: It’s kind of funny at this point, because one of our arguments in the campaign for so long was that the impact goes beyond McGill and it will influence so many other institutions. But McGill took so long to make up their mind about divestment that we’re one of the last universities in Canada to make this announcement. But I do think that it still has an impact on the movement, because it is further proof of the potential of collective organizing, mobilization, and the power that students have when they come together to push for these sort of things. So, I think, even though it’s not the first victory that our movement has seen, it’s still something to be celebrated and something that can serve as fuel, no pun intended, for mobilizing for climate justice.
EH: It’s important to note why McGill has divested. I think a large part of why we have divested, [which] was also communicated to us in meetings with CAMSR, was because Harvard, the University of Toronto, and other major universities have also divested. [With] the more institutions and schools that divest, we continue to slowly tear at the social license of fossil fuel companies, and we continue to delegitimize their operations. So hopefully, this will lead other schools to divest as well, as it was a large part of the reason why McGill divested. But I also wanted to add that divestment isn’t only about fossil fuels. We fully endorse SPHR’s campaign goals to get McGill to divest from the arms and weapons industry, particularly Israeli arms and weapons companies. Similar to what Laura said, we hope we set a precedent for McGill to divest from these companies and that [other groups] can use this case to help support their campaign. Part of the other sustainability commitments that McGill has made, in addition to divestment, to reinforce and endorse the ESG principle. If McGill is serious about committing to that, I think that can be used to argue that we need to also divest from socially destructive and extremely unethical companies.
MD: Why do you think it took so long for McGill to divest?
LDP: The reason it took so long for McGill to divest is the fact that that decision was not democratically made. Most of the people on the Board are not elected to be there. They’re appointed by other members of the Board. For a long time, those against fossil fuel divestment had the majority and would appoint other people that had similar values in them. We were lucky that [attitude] shifted inside the board thanks to our organizing. But had we had more power over how decisions are made, that decision could have been made earlier. Hopefully, that’s something we’re able to push for in the future that could help other campaigns.
EH: I just want to reinforce what Laura said. The reason why it took McGill 12 years to reach this conclusion is because we’re fundamentally an undemocratic institution. Almost every governing body at McGill has already endorsed divestment way before this decision was made. The Senate, SSMU, and student associations, not only endorsed, but re-endorsed divestment, and the Board only decided now that they were going to go with divestment. So, clearly, there’s a disconnection between the community and the Board that really needs to be addressed.
MD: What were the biggest challenges you faced during this 12-year campaign?
LDP: There’s the financial incentive, so money was definitely one of their reasons. But I also think it was just a disconnect in values and priorities. [Previously], there was a refusal of associating the harm with the industry, which is something I’m really glad we were able to break through. Part of removing the fossil fuel industry’s social licence is making it very clear that this industry is responsible for the climate crisis, that this industry is responsible for land theft and for violence against Indigenous communities and so many other communities.
EH: The argument for divestment is very simple. We have so much evidence of the social injury that fossil fuel companies cause, and yet it wasn’t really about that. It doesn’t matter how much evidence we have, it didn’t seem to matter, or else we would have divested a long time ago. For instance, McGill is investing in TC Energy, which is building the CGL [Coastal GasLink] pipeline. The CGL pipeline is going through unceded territory without consent from the hereditary chiefs. McGill is investing and profiting off of these extremely socially destructive projects. As a school, we’re also producing research on the climate crisis and we teach courses to students about how our planet is completely going to be destabilized by the climate crisis. Yet, as an administration, we’re also simultaneously funding the very sources of the climate destruction. There’s such a disconnect between the two and I think the struggle has been trying to explain, even though we have so much evidence, why these companies are causing social injury. And it’s come down to a matter of communication. How can we most effectively explain and try to communicate this to individuals who have different values than we do?
MD: What were your main strategies for the past 12 years?
LDP: I think one thing that has been quite effective for us is adopting a dual approach where on one side, we have people that are trying to make connections with people on the board and explain things to them and trying to change their mind with a very friendly approach. Then on the other side, having Divest organize more pressure tactics. We had a lot of marches, a lot of petitions that were sent to the Board. That dual approach, I think, was effective, because the harder we would push with the pressure tactics, the friendlier those that were making presentations would seem. But we were both asking for the same thing. Another one of the tactics that we had was to follow the money by putting pressure on the financial relationships and incentives that McGill has.
MD: What are your next objectives?
EH: One would definitely be supporting SPHR and other groups on campus that are in support of Palestinian liberation. But also, looking into whether McGill follows through with their commitments. So whether they follow through within the next year because they committed within 2024, by the end of it, they would phase out all the investments. McGill has only committed to divesting their direct investments, but this excludes the indirect investments that are still in fossil fuels, […] so advocating to divest the remaining amount.
MD: Is there anything that you would like to add?
LDP: I think a lot of students feel like they don’t have enough knowledge, time, or experience to get involved, and that keeps a lot of people from reaching out to campaigns to join them. I want to tell those students that anyone and everyone is welcome, and that everyone is needed in this movement and that there is a place for them. […] I’d encourage anyone who is interested by this article and is excited about what the future of climate justice at McGill and beyond can look like to reach out to Divest so that we can start building it together.
EH: I also feel like a lot of organizing on the McGill campus right now in regards to climate action revolves around individual actions or changing individual lifestyles and less on systemic action. And I hope that we can see in the future more of a turn towards what is McGill doing about addressing the climate crisis or what is our government doing, what is their plan to address the climate crisis? Is it adequate? What is Canada doing? How can we think about bringing about systemic changes in addition to individual ones?