• Terra Observer

The post-secondary fight for divestment amidst a pandemic

Diving deep into Ontario's campus divestment movements, Co-Editor-in-Chief Vicky Qiao tells us where we are now and where we’re going.

Vicky Qiao, Co-Editor-In-Chief

Between 1990 and 2018, Canada's emissions increased by nearly 21 per cent. (Marcin Jozwiak / Unsplash)

As Ontario's spread of COVID-19 gained rapid momentum in March, the number of coronavirus cases increased while oil prices plummeted. Oil was once one of the most reliable investments in Canada. The recent downfall of the oil industry has stirred doubt and provoked the public to rethink investing in fossil fuels—something the divestment movement has been advocating for a long time.

While post-secondary institutions in Ontario and across Canada were working on curriculum changes in response to the pandemic, the University of Guelph made an important decision regarding its endowment portfolio.

On April 22, the University of Guelph’s Board of Governors voted to divest from fossil fuel companies, making Guelph one of the first universities in Canada to commit to divestment and the first in Ontario.

Starting this year, Guelph will begin the process of divesting from its fossil fuel holdings over a five-year period. The decision marks the latest step taken by the university to meet its long-term carbon reduction targets.

Divestment is a movement that has gripped university campuses for years—one that has seen few major successes until now. Many students and alumni participated in the board’s discussion. Among them was Fossil Free Guelph, a student-run group that has been pushing for Guelph’s divestment from fossil fuel companies since 2013 and advocating for a more sustainable future.

Over the past seven years, members of Fossil Free Guelph have been communicating with the university and demanding climate action. The group has worked closely with the university toward its commitment to reduce its carbon footprint and transition to sustainable investment, with the ultimate goal of complete divestment.

“We will hold the University of Guelph accountable for the commitment made today, and if that commitment turns out to be anything less than full divestment, we will continue to push them to do better,” the group said in a statement.

Fossil Free Guelph members rally on campus back in January, 2019. (Fossil Free Guelph / Facebook)

However, not everyone is content with the university’s decision to divest. Martha Billes, former chancellor of the University of Guelph and a controlling shareholder of the Canadian Tire Corporation, resigned over the university’s divestment decision.

“My decision to resign as Chancellor was prompted by the incompatibility of my business interests with the Board of Governors’ decision to divest from fossil fuel companies in its endowment portfolio,” Billes said in her statement.

Billes isn’t the only university professional to step down over contentious divestment decisions. Back in January, McGill University professor Gregory Mikkelson made headlines when he also resigned due to his institution’s holdings, but for the opposite reason. The philosophy professor handed in his resignation letter after the university rejected the motion to divest from fossil fuels for the third time.

In 2018, Mikkelson submitted a pro-divestment motion to the McGill Senate, which passed by a large majority. Yet after discussing the matter with their committee—chaired by a former Petro-Canada executive—McGill's Board of Governors ultimately refused to divest its endowment.

“The McGill travesty is a microcosm of an ecocide contradiction at the heart of Canadian federal policy,” Mikkelson wrote in an online review.

Despite the ongoing efforts from university students and professors to push for divestment and sustainable portfolios, the majority of universities in Canada are still reluctant to pull out of their substantial investments in non-renewable energies.

One of these institutions is the University of Toronto. Although Toronto is a centre for student activism in Ontario, the University of Toronto has been criticized for its lack of commitment to sustainability. Student activists and local groups like Toronto350 have organized ongoing campaigns and petitions demanding that the university initiate divestment and commence climate action.

In 2016, the university rejected suggestions made by the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment (PAC), which recommended the school divest from firms spreading misinformation about climate change.

Instead of divesting, the University of Toronto introduced an alternative plan to investments on a firm-by-firm basis using environmental, social and governance factors. Yet many think that the university needs to do much more in order to reduce the carbon emissions that stem from its portfolio.

“This administration has been very good at greenwashing its unwillingness to challenge the corporate power driving the climate crisis under support for sustainability initiatives,” Julia DaSilva, founder of Leap U of T, told The Varsity in an interview last year.

Leap U of T is a student-run group dedicating their divestment efforts toward Victoria College, one of seven colleges at the University of Toronto.

“We’re working on ways to direct this momentum back into a cross-campus campaign that will force U of T’s administration out of their confidence that divestment at U of T is dead,” she said.

The Climate Crisis Coalition at Western, a recently-established student organization at Western University, has made divestment and responsible investing one of its three pillars. The group is calling on the university to transition away from its fossil fuel investments and to create a sustainable fund.

While prominent universities like the University of Toronto and Western University have yet to take any bold action in building a sustainable endowment portfolio, some universities across provincial lines have taken significant steps to decarbonize their investments. Last year, Quebec’s Concordia University decided to divest entirely from coal, oil and gas by 2025.

With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating and spreading across Canada, divestment efforts have been buried by information on the outbreak which has dominated news media and public discourse.

It’s a challenging time for climate activism, but youth and student organizers are finding new ways to keep the momentum going.

Between April 22 and 24, organizers and climate activists from around the world participated in Earth Day Live—a large-scale, online mobilization for the climate crisis. The three-day action was packed with teach-ins, musical performances and divestment initiatives that people could access from their screens.

Since March 26, Climate Justice Toronto (CJTO), a youth-led grassroots collective, has been hosting Zoom meetings to build solidarity within the group before they start planning online campaigns and fundraising initiatives.

“Physical distancing can be very isolating. We are so grateful for our community and want to use this platform to encourage community in these difficult times,” CJTO wrote on its Facebook page.

The group has also been organizing weekly watch parties, where they screen films that reflect environmental and social justice issues.

With the global health crisis dominating news coverage and political agendas, it's unclear what divestment movements will look like in Canada’s near future. However, the University of Guelph’s recent decision is a glimmer of hope, demonstrating the success of student divestment initiatives in pressuring universities to commit to greener investing.

With Guelph being the first university in Ontario to divest from fossil fuels, this decision could motivate a stronger push from student organizers at other schools in the province.

Recent events have shown the fragility of the oil and gas sectors in times of volatility. Pro-divestment students will be demanding institutions to move forward, rather than return to "normal".