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Student group Divest McGill and its supporters have been steadily applying pressure on McGill University to divest from fossil fuels since its Board of Governors votes against divestment on March 23. The group quickly developed a list of three demands and the university ceded some headway within a week.

And off-campus, the group’s actions are making waves.

Backed by a community largely in favour of divestment, Divest McGill occupied McGill’s main administration building last week, camped out in a dozen tents at the foot of the building, and held teach-ins and a concert there to highlight how the decision was taking the community astray.

Nine students occupiers had a meeting with McGill’s Principal Suzanne Fortier on Thursday, livestreamed to hundreds of viewers, however, it was the alumni ceremony on Friday that stole the show.

Alumni return diplomas, withhold donations

“I cannot use the McGill name in my professional life … until this decision changes,” said Camil Bouchard, who received a PhD in psychology from the institution in 1974. On April 1, he returned his diploma at a ceremony outside McGill’s administration building.

Bouchard was one of around 15 alumni who returned their diplomas that day, and was one of the originators of the idea, along with Karel Mayrand, director of the Quebec chapter of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Unbeknownst to the audience of over a hundred that gathered that day, they were about to hear a major financial announcement.

“I am a portfolio manager at Scotiabank,” said Naghmeh Sabet-Rasekh. The 1988 recipient of a McGill biochemistry degree noted of those in the financial industry, “We do not speak loudly, we do not occupy buildings, but we speak a language you will understand very soon.”

“A client wanted to donate $2 million to McGill,” Sabet-Rasekh told the crowd. But when she forwarded her client the email Principal Fortier had sent to the community announcing McGill’s intention to stay invested in fossil fuels, the client had a change of heart.

“We are sorry to say we are not going to contribute the $2 million to McGill anymore,” Sabet-Rasekh said, to uproarious applause from the crowd. She paused and continued, saying, “unless you reverse your decision.”

Antonina Scheer, a Divest McGill member, pointed out that the diploma returning ceremony was receiving international attention after  it was covered by McGill alum Martin Lukacs in UK-based The Guardian who had a friend return his diploma on April 1.

“We got calls from a South Korean radio show and a Russian radio show, and of course Canadian news as well,” says Scheer. “We think that this is partially due to the fact that this has not really been done before.”

Campaign momentum creates movement on two demands

“There’s a momentum here that’s different from last time,” said Danji Buck-Moore while returning his diploma. Buck-Moore had occupied McGill’s administration building in 2012 to hold a surprise resignation party for an unpopular administrator. That occupation ended when dozens of police evicted the students, threatening arrest.

Divest McGill’s occupation ended voluntarily and peacefully, with no police involvement as the group left the building to join the diploma-returning ceremony, bringing along jubilant and emotional energy.

Buck-Moore applauded Divest McGill for the way it had planned actions to build on each other, growing community support and escalating pressure.

The first time McGill decided to remain invested in fossil fuels was in 2013. The reason given was similar to 2016, namely that there was not adequate evidence that fossil fuel corporations cause social injury. 

But unlike in 2013, Divest McGill was ready to respond this time.

Emily Boytinck, VP External Affairs of the Students’ Society of McGill University, was one of nine Divest McGill members who occupied the administration building days after McGill’s decision for three nights. 

“The camp-out we really thought about from a strategic perspective because we knew that while it’s important to have folks on the inside,” Boytinck tells rabble, “it’s so much more important to have that show of support on the outside. That was something we did really well. It was so uplifting for us on the inside too.” 

Boytinck emphasizes that the occupation, which took place in the small reception area to the Principal’s office, was not always comfortable, and required the group to continually check in with each other emotionally and about strategy.

The group had drafted three demands of McGill’s leadership. At a meeting with the Principal on March 31, the first time she had agreed to meet with the group in two years, their demands were somewhat addressed. 

“They came in and said ‘we will do these consultation sessions [about the divestment decision] and we will contact the experts for their testimonies, which is a part of both our first and second demand. They did not move in the slightest on acknowledging that fossil fuels cause social injury,” recalls Boytinck.

“I think we’ll be able to mobilize around the open forums and then ideally sort of co-opt their process and use it against them. They’re saying they want these forums just for their recommendations.” 

Among those who endorse divestment are the three major student societies, the professor associations of Law and Arts, and notable union groups on campus. This will make it hard for McGill’s Board of Governors to avoid questions about its decision.

The group “McGill Faculty and Librarians for Divestment” noted that “[Divest McGill has] followed established procedures to the letter. Yet, the process they undertook in such good faith has unfolded as if none of their efforts mattered at all.”

Since the diploma returning ceremony on April 1, over 100 more alumni have signed Divest McGill’s alumni letter to either not donate to McGill or return their diploma if McGill does not divest.

Asked what the university thought of the diploma returning ceremony, a McGill spokesperson told rabble “A university is a place built on freedom of speech, where everyone can express peacefully their point of view and dissent.”


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

Photo: David Gray-Donald