McGill is so much better than this

In response to the Board of Governor ruling on divestment

On April 1st, 19 McGill alumni ceremonially returned their diplomas in protest, in response to the Board of Governors’ decision to once again refuse divestment of the fossil fuel industry. As those graduates expressed their disappointment, anger and heartbreak over the microphone to  a crowd of supporters, groups of prospective new students toured the McGill campus and saw my university for the very first time.

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Before taking on this article, I had a very limited understanding of what divestment meant in the context of McGill, or how our school invests in the fossil fuel industry in the first place. As it turns out, McGill has about 5-8% of its endowment funds invested in the shares of companies in the fossil fuel industry. This means that between $70 million and $112 million has been invested from funds which are set aside to benefit McGill students.

The Endowment is managed under the direction of McGill’s Investment Committee and, from the last published Annual Report, the “overall objective” of the Endowment is stated in terms of providing the necessary financial return “within the social and ethical norms of the University.”

It is to be managed respecting the University’s values.

Divest McGill says that investments in the fossil fuel industry ignore and undermine those values.

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Supporters and members of Divest McGill camped out for four days in solidarity with the sit-in simultaneously taking place inside the James Administration Building

Since 2012, Divest McGill has been calling on the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry and to reinvest into more environmentally, socially and economically responsible alternatives. Since its creation, DM has gathered more than 2500 signatures on its petition and has garnered remarkable support from PGSS, SSMU, The Faculty of Law, Arts, Education, and Environment, as well as 150 professors (including from Environmental Studies), 250 alumni, and thousands of community members.

In 2013, DM presented its petition to the McGill Board of Governors’ Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility  and was met with a decision to remain invested in fossil fuels due to “insufficient evidence of social injury”. In February 2015, DM submitted a petition for the second time, along with a 150 page report outlining the environmental and social harm that has resulted from  the fossil fuel industry and the exploitation of the tar sands . CAMSR and the Board committed to reaching a decision by the end of March 2016, a period of 13 months to review the Petition and report back to the Board of Governors.

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The McGill community gathers to take part in the diploma returning ceremony

CAMSR responded to DM’s petition in a report not submitted  by CAMSR to the Board of Governors until March 22nd, giving the Board only 26 hours to review the CAMSR report before being asked to approve it at a Board meeting scheduled for March 23rd. The Board decision was made in a closed, unpublicized meeting, the agenda of which was not made known to the public until the morning of the meeting itself, with no opportunity for DM to make a presentation. DM posted an article saying that members attended the open portion of the Board meeting with duct tape over their mouths “to denounce the lack of public forum for community consultation on divestment, or on the (CAMSR) report itself”.

All CAMSR meetings were held in closed sessions throughout the 13 months that the committee analyzed DM’s research brief. The Board of Governors did not take  the opportunity to hear from DM directly, despite the fact that DM attended every Board meeting as observers this year. Although CAMSR has continuously referred to DM as a partner, the day the decision was made DM members attending the Board meeting were escorted into the James Administration Building by security.

The decision of the Board, based on the CAMSR report, was to refuse divestment. CAMSR denied that the consequences of the actions of the top fossil fuel companies McGill was invested in met the criteria for grave social injury and thus did not see a need to divest.

It is both the decision to remain invested and the lack of transparency in the process that moved DM to take new action.

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McGill physics professor Shaun Lovejoy expresses his disappointment before adding his diploma to the pile of those returned

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The group had three demands: “community consultation and a subsequent revision of the divestment report submitted to the Board, transparency regarding experts consulted during the deliberations, and a statement acknowledging the grave social injury caused by the fossil fuel industry.”

On March 29th, nine students from DM began a sit-in in Suzanne Fortier’s office. They had food to last them weeks and were prepared to stay until their demands were met. The media reaction was immediate, not only by internal news publications at McGill but by sources such as The Montreal Gazette, The Globe and Mail and Vice.

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Exhausted but determined Divest McGill members emerge from Principal Fortier’s office after four days

Principal Fortier agreed to meet with the students partaking in the sit in on March 31st. As a result of that meeting Principal Fortier has committed “to participate in open forums in the future, focusing on McGill’s response to climate change but not explicitly on divestment”. She also plans “to ask the experts who provided testimony in the decision-making processes to consider making their statements public”. While this action is definitely encouraging, the very fact that a meeting had to be held in such a context is discouraging.

When I arrived at the administration building in hopes of speaking with a few of the students who had been sleeping in Suzanne Fortier’s office for days, I was told I was not allowed into the room as I was representing an external news source. Fortunately, one of the sit-in students, Ava Mohsenin, was able to join me downstairs to answer questions.

It was immediately clear that Mohsenin and her fellow DM members were willing to make sacrifices for the cause, including their ability to attend class, complete assignments and attend midterms.

“We all care so much about our classes but this is an issue that affects us all.” Mohsenin explained. “It is beyond our academic career.”

She did not speak with anger, instead she spoke with eloquence and a dedicated heart that moved me, while we sat in the lobby with two security guards at each corner of the room.

“I really do think that McGill is a leader. They encourage us to be courageous and take a stand for our principles and for our values. I just want McGill to stand for what they teach us in the classrooms.”

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Ava Mohsenin speaks at the diploma returning ceremony

Needless to say, I do not have a complete understanding of the science behind climate change or the impact that divesting from the fossil fuel industry would have on our university.

What I do understand is how it feels to be one of those kids touring campus for the first time.

I remember coming to McGill and being struck by how vibrant and dedicated the students and faculty were. There were so many opportunities to be opinionated and compassionate. This felt like a place where hard work and a knowledgable voice would be respected.

I believed in this university when I took that tour. And I still do.

Because McGill is so much better than this.

We are better than a decision making process that remains behind closed doors and silences the voices of passionate McGill students.

Those within the McGill community who have committed to peacefully, intelligently and respectfully fighting for what they believe in, deserve a transparent and fair process that is worthy of the school I am so proud to attend.

As those nineteen McGill graduates laid their diplomas meant to be received by Principal Fortier on her unoccupied chair, many expressed their disappointment. Some talked about anger they felt and had felt even during their time as a student as a result of McGill’s history of investment in fossil fuels. Some talked about their fear of the disastrous future of climate change.

Many also spoke with sadness, heartbroken by what they perceived to be the actions and response of a school they loved.

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Thirteen graduates personally handed back their diplomas as well as six who were unable to attend the ceremony and whose diplomas were returned by proxies

An article by The Globe and Mail quotes Board president Stuart Cobbet:“In the view of the committee, the action against climate change that can be taken by McGill will be much more effective if McGill does the things McGill does best – research [and] putting very smart minds to work on finding alternate sources of energy,.”

As someone who believes in the importance of divestment, I implore Mr. Cobbet, Principal Fortier and the Board of Governors to show faith in the very minds that they work so incredibly hard to nurture and grow. Please show your belief in the brilliant people who make up this community and the very scientific endeavours that you are talking about, by giving us the opportunity to find an alternative to McGill’s investment in an industry that is ultimately detrimental to us all.

I saw the faces of the kids in that tour group as they walked past the diploma returning ceremony Friday morning; they were filled with shock and disappointment

I don’t want anyone to look at my school like that again.

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