Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Divest McGill: Getting McGill to Follow Through on Its Commitment to Sustainability

By Morganne Blais-McPherson

Earlier this spring, the Sustainability Project team members convened around cold coffee and leftover conference cookies to discuss, what else, sustainability at McGill. At some point, the conversation veered away from workshop dates and AV reservations and onto the subject of the impromptu campsite that had emerged in front of the James Administration building. The obvious question arose – so, what do we think about this Divest McGill business? Well, it didn’t take much debate before we all arrived at the same conclusion – we like it. We like it a lot.

And so, I was sent off, wide-eyed, camera in hand, to the famous tents, hoping to set up times for interviews. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. When I finally arrived to the location, the tents were gone, the banners blown away, the electrifying spirit of a university occupation now only surviving in our memories… What I’m trying to get at here is that you're going to have to try and picture a bunch of tents with people in front of a big stone building, because we don’t have any pictures.

Instead, I set up meetings with two members of Divest McGill, Kristen (U3 Environmental Sciences) and Guillaume (U3 Economics and Political Sciences), to talk about the campaign, as well as their thoughts on sustainability in the classroom.

Born out of the more broadly-oriented “Decorporatize McGill”, the campaign has one clear demand: McGill must divest from tar sands and fossil fuel companies. Kristen, who just graduated this spring, has been involved with Divest McGill since it was created in the fall of 2012. For Kristen, focusing on divestment was a way towards a wide and concrete change within an institution for which students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike could work together. 

However, concrete change wasn’t as simple as Kristen had anticipated. Three years into the campaign and divestment has yet to happen. Even after going through the CAMSR (Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility) twice, McGill’s $1.3-billion endowment fund is still have between 5% and 8% invested in fossil fuel companies.

As an McGill alumna, it is disheartening, not to mention unacceptable, that such a top institution continues to throw money into an industry that has repeatedly been shown to cause grave social injury. In fact, it was on this point that Divest McGill’s last 150-page research submission to CAMSR relied on.

This negative sentiment is shared with both Guillaume and Kristen, who expressed their personal disappointment at having a principal and a Board of Governors so disconnected from the rest of the McGill community. That the students had to stage a sit-in in order to meet Principal Suzanne Fortier on such a pressing issue leads one to question the principal’s commitment to sustainability. As Guillaume said, some things are important, and “sitting down and talking about things would probably be a good way to get things going”.

But McGill is doing a lot towards sustainability, which is what makes their recent refusal to divest so confusing. Just the other day, I was reading McGill’s beautifully drafted Vision 2020 and its most recent progress report. It is clear when reading the reports that the university is making a laudable effort at finding long-term solutions by funding sustainability research, educating its community, and altering the university’s operations. In fact, both Kristen and Guillaume made a point of crediting McGill for these efforts.

For some reason, when it comes to investments in fossil fuels, McGill is lagging behind the many other institutions (such as the University of Ottawa) that have divested, “acting like a blockade to change rather than as a supportive body”, as Guillaume put it. Over 3.4 trillion dollars have already been divested from this destructive industry. Thankfully, people like Guillaume and Kristen are making sure that McGill follows through on its commitments to sustainability.

Wishing there were more people like Guillaume and Kristen, I thought it wise to ask them about their own ideas on Education for Sustainable Development. Some responses came from other members of Divest McGill, who have allowed us to include their ideas in the following poster.

Before, signing off, we would like to thank Divest McGill for all their work in making McGill the sustainable institution it has committed itself to being. Divest NOW!

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