With this spring’s campaign for divestment behind us and more activism likely to come in the fall, a brief window for critical reflection on the movement is upon us. This past semester’s sit-ins and rallies, spearheaded by groups such as Divest McGill, have largely been respectful and positive displays of direct action. However, last month also saw some environmental protesters adopt a new, more negative strategy—one which will hopefully not be repeated in the fall.
On April 4, McGill students and faculty hosted Quebec’s former premier Jean Charest, invited to the university for a speech about restoring trust in Canada's public institutions. During Charest's presentation, a group of protesters, citing in part their anger over McGill's refusal to divest from fossil fuels, interrupted the former premier and forced him to abort his speech. In a video from the event, protesters are seen holding banners and chanting “Charest, trou de cul, espèce de corrompu,” (“Charest, you goddamn corrupt asshole.”) In addition to the protesters in the video, a group of McGill students who support divestment protested outside the event and claimed responsibility for having shut it down.
The disruption of Charest's speech should never have happened. As a way to protest the Board of Governors’ (BoGs’) decision on divestment, it was useless: Charest is in no way affiliated with the McGill administration. He couldn't change the Board's decision even if he wanted to. As a Université de Sherbrooke grad, Charest isn't even a McGill alumnus.
The protesters also referenced other environmental issues, such as pipelines and tar sands, as reasons for the disruption. However, lobbying Charest for change on these issues is pointless. He's been retired from politics since 2012—it's far too late for him to do anything about it.
The protesters not only failed to realize that attacking Charest was a bad strategy, they also demonstrated that they were unaware of who the real victims of such a disruption would be: Members of the McGill community. Dozens of students and staff attended Charest's speech that afternoon because they wanted to hear the former premier's thoughts on an important issue. By disrupting the proceedings, these activists denied the attendees that opportunity.
As a university with a prestigious international reputation, McGill is fortunate to be able to attract successful public figures like Charest to share their thoughts with the student body. Publicized incidents like this one might discourage other public figures from speaking at McGill in the future, robbing all students of one of the most valuable resources that McGill's lofty status provides them.
Earlier this semester, McGill had the privilege of welcoming the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, to campus for a talk. Climate justice activists welcomed the visit because the Secretary-General supports divestment, yet the Charest incident suggests that if Ban's views on the issue had been different, his speech might have been shut down too. By silencing guest speakers with dissenting views, a handful of environmental activists are essentially dictating which opinions are welcome on campus and which are not.
Ironically, Charest's own views on divestment could have made a valuable contribution to the campus conversation on the issue. In 2015, Charest co-authored an article for the Globe and Mail in which he raised important issues related to divestment, such as ensuring fossil fuel companies remain leaders in renewable energy investments, and avoiding financial decisions that might force universities to make further budget cuts. If he had been asked about the issue, he could have presented his sensible and nuanced opposition to divestment in a way that would promote dialogue among students. Silencing Charest wasted that opportunity.
If the strategy of disrupting guest speakers becomes a common practice for some climate protesters, it risks undermining the otherwise positive and respectful activist efforts made by others on campus. Divest McGill's spring campaign was admirable in its civility and conviction, and should remain the example for students demonstrating in support of divestment. Going forward, environmental activists ought to keep in mind the mistake that was the Charest protest, and avoid ineffective, negative tactics that only end up hurting the student body.