Fossil fuel divestment at universities: Inside McGill's campaign

| March 4, 2016
Photo: flickr/ 350 .org

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Fossil fuel divestment campaigns have taken university campuses by storm.

This month, McGill and the University of Toronto are expected to decide their courses of action on whether to sell off their investments in companies with the core business of extracting and selling fossil fuels because these activities represent serious social injury. 

In December, a University of Toronto (U of T) presidential advisory committee recommended targeted fossil fuel divestment.

At McGill, after an initial petition was rejected in 2013, an updated, research-heavy, 150-page petition was submitted by student group Divest McGill in February 2015.

Inevitably the announcements from these two big name schools will make media waves as was the case with the University of British Columbia rejecting divestment last month

But what is the story behind the scenes and who makes the ultimate decisions? 

We take an in-depth look at the situation at McGill University to give a deeper understanding of divestment campaigns and what influences them. 

Behind the scenes at McGill

The ultimate decision-making body at McGill for fossil fuel divestment and most major financial matters is the Board of Governors. A subgroup of the Board is tasked with considering the divestment petition, the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR).

During the last petition nearly three years ago, CAMSR was chaired by Brenda Norris, sister of former Liberal Prime Minister John Turner, and with support from Gerald Butts, current Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Also on the Committee at the time was then-Principal Heather Munroe-Blum who controversially was sitting on the board of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. 

At that time, RBC and the Canadian Pension Plan were heavily invested in fossil fuel companies, and Trudeau was backing fossil fuel investments. Conflict of interest of these members was not discussed in relation to the divestment petition then, according to McGill Secretary General Stephen Strople. 

The petition was also discussed with McGill's Finance Committee, whose members included prominent investors like Kathy Fazel, who heads the Montreal office of Phillips, Hager & North, an RBC-owned service for millionaire clients.

With the arrival of the new petition in February 2015, however, Butts stepped away to avoid potential conflict and to focus on the federal election campaign and Munroe-Blum and Norris had moved on from the committee.

Secretary General Strople told rabble recently that "The Committee [to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility] has dealt with the issue of conflict of interest and this will‎ be addressed in the [forthcoming] report."

There is one student on the Committee, Kareem Ibrahim, President of the Students' Society of McGill University, two professors (one architect, one physiologist), one McGill student advisor and one other member at large, a metals engineer.

The most powerful characters are the Chair of the Board, Stuart (Kip) Cobbett, and the Principal, Suzanne Fortier, who both sit on CAMSR. Cobbett was Chief Operating Officer of Stikeman Elliot, a corporate law powerhouse, and was a partner there until at least 2014. He currently chairs CAMSR, having taken over for Butts. 

Principal Fortier, to the relief of many, is not sitting on external corporate boards. But Divest McGill members shook their heads in disbelief when, according to a press release from the group, Fortier "was skeptical of the links between extensive lobbying by fossil fuel companies both domestically and internationally and their funding of biased science."

Despite maintaining good relations with members of the Board, Divest McGill members note the whole process is opaque, a perennial problem at McGill, and have found it hard to know who is being consulted by CAMSR regarding the petition.

What happens next?

"Once the Committee (CAMSR) concludes its consideration, it will submit a full report to the Board of Governors," says Secretary General Strople. In 2013, CAMSR found fossil fuel investments represented no "social injury" (the criteria used by McGill and other universities in these cases) so no further discussion was required by the Board.

But, as Kristen Perry of Divest McGill says, "It has been proven beyond a doubt that fossil fuel companies are causing social injury, through direct human rights violations, environmental disasters, and climate change. The proof has been put forward by many well-respected organizations, from the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the National Academy of Science, the Royal Society of Canada and the World Health Organization."

The winds of public discourse have shifted since 2013, and not just ethically.

As Toby Heaps, investment professional and publisher of the magazine Corporate Knights, notes it is financial too. "There are no analysts that I know and no major investors who would be comfortable on the record making the point that over the next 10 to 20 years, this sector [fossil fuel investments] is going to perform better than the economy at large," Heaps told the Vancouver Sun after the recent UBC decision.

The next steps at McGill depends on what CAMSR says. "The Board process will be to consider the content of the CAMSR report once that it is known" says Strople, "and deal with whatever recommendations are in the report."

It is conceivable CAMSR will acknowledge fossil fuel investments constitute social injury this time. Then the big question will be: what action will the Board take? 

Divest McGill is concerned that shareholder engagement will be proposed as the answer, something they specifically describe in their petition as insufficient.

"That would be an entirely unacceptable outcome," Fakhroo of Divest McGill tells rabble. "Refusing to divest from fossil fuels would mean that the administration has actively chosen to support an industry that even they acknowledge is causing harm. I expect there would be a feeling of betrayal and outrage from students, faculty, staff and alumni if the Board ignored the community's expressed support for divestment."

Reasons for the Board choosing not to divest may include perceived financial risk, and fear of alienating alumni, donors and research partners, including corporations in the fossil fuel sector, some of whom run programs at McGill.

But, according to Fakhroo, "Whatever happens, this movement will not go away; climate change is happening now, and people will continue to take action until our university stops being complicit in fossil fuel companies' willingful destruction of our planet."

The report from the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility is expected to be sent to the Board before the end of the month.

 

Disclosure: the author worked from 2011-2013 for the Students' Society of McGill University. 

David Gray-Donald is a freelance journalist and community organizer in Toronto and Montreal.

Photo: flickr/ 350 .org

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