Divest McGill: A Look Back

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The recent success of the student campaign ULaval Sans Fossiles to successfully petition Université Laval to divest from fossil fuel companies stands in stark contrast to the campaign for divestment at McGill University. Following the success of  divestment campaigns at the University of Glasgow and London School of Economics, just to name a few, Université Laval demonstrates the divestment movement’s growing momentum in universities and educational institutions across the world. While the divestment movement at McGill has been widely popular among students and faculty alike, the petitions and demands for divesting from fossil fuel companies have fallen on deaf ears – the McGill Board of Governors having most recently rejected a petition proposed by Divest McGill in March 2016. While the divestment campaign has fallen short of its ultimate goals, Divest McGill continues to make its mark on campus, remaining the leading student activist group through its ongoing engagement with both students and the McGill administration on issues of climate justice and divestment.

Established in 2012 as one of the first fossil fuel divestment campaigns in Canada, Divest McGill has pressured the administration to divest from a wide range of fossil fuel companies and corporations included in the university’s endowment fund – currently comprising around 35 corporations from 645 total corporations. Drawing inspiration from the South African apartheid and tobacco industry divestment movements – two prominent examples in the history of student activism at McGill – Divest McGill sees divestment as a means to delegitimize and remove the ‘social license to operate’ of corporations that benefit from fossil fuels.  

“The goal of divestment isn’t to financially harm these corporations, because the institutional endowment is so small for them even to notice, but institutions – and especially educational institutions – when they can make statements and say ‘we think that this industry is unjust and unethical and we don’t want to be a part of it,’ that can have significant ramifications throughout society” Jed Lenetsky stated, a McGill U2 student who has been heavily involved with Divest McGill since 2015.

Lenetsky explained that Divest McGill has centered on this aim of divestment from the very beginning, spending much of the past five years engaging and consulting with the administrative bodies and the McGill Board of Directors to realise this aim.

Organised in the aftermath of Quebec’s contentious student strikes, Divest McGill took a drastically different approach to achieving its goals. Whereas student protesters utilised strikes and marches as tactics to realise their aims, Divest McGill adopted a strikingly less contentious agenda in tackling the issue of divestment at McGill.

“Divest McGill was founded after the student activism in 2012 and we really wanted to take a different approach [to the student strikes]. Not that there was anything wrong with the activism going on, but we wanted to try something else, and we thought if we are going through the [institutional] channels and speak to them with their language then we can find success” Lenetsky continued.

Working with the McGill administration, Divest McGill began their campaign by submitting a petition to the McGill Board of Governors in the spring of 2013, demanding divestment from fossil fuel companies. Despite collecting over 1,500 signatures from staff, students, and faculty members and receiving the endorsements from numerous student associations and faculties across McGill, the petition was rejected by the Board of Governors in May of that same year – citing insufficient evidence presented by the petition to prove “social injury” caused by fossil fuels.  

Undeterred by this rejection, Divest McGill began steps towards a submitting a second petition to the Board of Governors, including a 150-page report that provided well-documented arguments promoting divestment. The subsequent petition alongside the report was presented to the Board of Governors in February 2015. In March 2016, after waiting more than a year for a response, the Board of Governors yet again announced its rejection of the petition – releasing a report stating that fossil fuels did not ‘meet the test of social injury’ needed for divestment to occur. The publication of the report was heavily scrutinised by members of Divest McGill, citing the lack of open community consultation during the development of the report.

“[The] Board of Governors rejected divestment despite overwhelming community support, we had over 2,500 signatures on our petition, we had an alumni campaign, all the student unions at McGill had endorsed us, [as did] a number of faculties including the Faculty of Arts, so we had a lot of momentum,” Lenetsky emphasized.

The second rejection by the Board of Governors ushered in a change of tactics for Divest McGill, disheartened by the lack of progress that had been made through almost four years of engaging with the McGill administration.

“After two rejections and a lot of years of countless boardroom presentations, it became clear that they were not going to be swayed by the arguments alone and that they really need to feel [it is] something that the community wants and the community demands of them as people in power at McGill,” Lenetsky said.

Following the Board of Governors’ rejection of the second petition, Divest McGill organised sit-ins in Principal Fortier’s office, protests, teach-ins, and worked with McGill alumni to place increasing pressure on the McGill administration to accept demands of divestment.

“They [the Board of Governors] really went against the McGill community’s support, so we held a sit-in in Principal Fortier’s office and we demanded that they release the expert testimony they used in making their decision, which was previously confidential, and that they hold a community consultation to keep conversation about Divestment going, but also to see the overwhelming support we have on campus” Lenetsky explained.

For 72 hours, members of Divest McGill occupied space around Principal Fortier’s office in the James Administration Building, making their demands clear to the McGill administrative body. For members of Divest McGill, Principal Fortier’s refusal to meet with the group since 2014 was emblematic of the wider issue of a lack of communication and consultation on behalf of the McGill administration.

The days of protests and sit-ins culminated in McGill alumni returning their diplomas to the university, with several alumni pledging to refuse to donate unless McGill accepted the demands for divestment.

“We have also found that even engaging with certain groups of people gets under the administration’s skin such as our alumni campaign – asking our alumni to pledge not to donate to McGill until they divest from fossil fuels” Lenetsky stated. “We had over 20 alumni return their degrees last year”. 

Despite Divest McGill’s efforts, the administration refused to accept the demands made, arguing that that the the Board of Governors’ decision to reject divestment could not change. Nonetheless, Lenesky explained that despite these setbacks, Divest McGill has continued to push for divestment through reforming McGill governance structures and overcoming institutional barriers that had impeded progress thus far.

“The McGill Board of Governors is highly undemocratic, they can make their decisions in secret and with minimal evidence, and it does not allow for individual accountability for decision-making… we found that we are confronting these institutional barriers, so in pushing for divestment we are also pushing to have these barriers at McGill removed” Lenetsky expanded.

Although Divest McGill has yet to reach an agreement with the administration regarding divestment, Lenetsky still has hope for the future and is proud of the progress Divest McGill has been made in the past five years.

“On an administrative level, we had changed the conversation on sustainability. Before we started, sustainability was not even part of the Board of Governor’s mandate, and now it is” Lenetsky acknowledged. “We got administrators thinking about how McGill can become more sustainable and what they can do. … We are still not agreeing on the solutions yet, but it is something they are thinking about, and I think that it is in large part due to the work we have been doing, so it is something we are very proud of.”

With the Board of Governors holding their first community session in February 2017 and making strides to include McGill students in their decision-making process, there is no doubt that divestment will once again be put back on the agenda. With the growing momentum of the divestment movement across Canada, it would be farcical to suggest that divestment won’t happen at McGill. It is simply not a question of if, but when.

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