On March 29, Divest McGill set up camp at James Square and inside the James Administration Building to protest last week’s Board of Governors (BoG) decision for McGill not to divest from its holdings in fossil fuel companies, based on a report by the Committee to Advise [on] Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR). According to Divest McGill’s Facebook event, the sit-in will last until the afternoon of Thursday, March 31.
Divest McGill organized various activities to take place during the sit-in. The sit-in commenced with a rally in support of divestment, a Solidarity with Black Lives Matter Toronto gathering, and a candlelight vigil for climate justice. The agenda for March 30 included a teach-in for climate justice featuring speakers from McGill Faculty and Alumni for Divestment, a daily divest rally, a cypher for climate justice with Dan Parker, and a candlelight vigil for climate justice.
In its Facebook event, the group explained its motive.
“During this time, we would like to make space for other social justice campaigns to speak out against the ways that the McGill administration has made decisions that are not in line with the views of the greater community,” Divest McGill wrote. “We have a number of programming activities prepared for the next few days, and are prepared to stay until our demands are met.”
Antonina Scheer, U2 Earth Science and Economics and Divest McGill organizer, clarified the reasons behind the decision to sit-in.
“We wanted to do something a little different than just doing another petition—although we’ll probably do that also because we’re not going anywhere,” Scheer said. “[A sit-in] happened in September, but it has to happen again. We have to play the role of activists and push a bit harder and just create pressure.”
Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) External Emily Boytinck criticized the lack of administrative pathways to pursue divestment.
“I have personally been involved with the campaign over three years now, and can attest to the fact that in that time we have completely exhausted the administrative channels, leaving us no choice but to escalate our tactics,” Boytinck said.
According to Boytinck, the sit-in has already produced a response from the university administration.
“On Tuesday, we spoke to Michael Di Grappa, Olivier Marcil, Susan Aberman, and Andre Costopoulos, since Suzanne Fortier was in California and not in her office,” Boytinck said. “We did, however, receive a letter from Susan Aberman indicating that we can meet with the Principal on Thursday. We will be meeting with her this afternoon and are cautiously optimistic. She has not been particularly supportive in the past, and for almost a year we have been trying to obtain a meeting with her with no avail. So at least the sit in has obtained this meeting, showing that our actions are not in vain. We have a letter of demands prepared and would like to talk to her about them.”
Among Divest McGill’s demands, also outlined in the Facebook event, is a call for transparency.
“[We demand] that the Committee to Advise [on] Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) engage in a public, transparent consultation process and rewrite the report on Divest McGill’s petition based on those consultations,” the Facebook post read.
Scheer highlighted the negative social impacts of climate change, as one reason Divest McGill disagrees with the findings of CAMSR’s report.
“We also have to acknowledge that the World Health Organization has estimated […] that 150,000 people die every year because of climate change,” Scheer said. “So, I don’t know how [CAMSR] can say with a straight face that that’s not social injury [….] It’s tremendously callous and outrageous that they would say that. I think we’re absolutely justified in our response.”
According to Marcil, McGill’s VP (Communications and External Relations,) the administration appreciated the peaceful nature of the protest.
“The senior administration values respectful discourse and discussion of issues on our campuses, and defends the right of students to express themselves through protest,” Marcil wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I'd like to particularly note the respectful way this protest was conducted, right down to the way the protesters cleaned up the area they were in before they departed. It is obvious that feelings are running high on this issue and undoubtedly the conversation will continue.”
Scheer affirmed that Divest McGill will lobby for divestment until the administration yields to their demands.
“Even when we leave [the square], we’re keeping the pressure on, so we’re not really going anywhere.” Scheer said.