Last week, McGill students were faced with a sense of déjà-vu when they were greeted by a congregation of Divest McGill speakers camped outside of the James Administration Building. In response to the McGill Board of Governor’s (BoG) decision to reject fossil fuel divestment, Divest McGill organized a sit-in, which ultimately culminated in a meeting between Principal Fortier and members of Divest McGill.
It has been a big year for Divest McGill. While the long-term effects of its campaigns are uncertain for now, one thing that is beyond question is that the group has generated conversations. On top of the ongoing debates between groups that are in favour of or against their agenda, there are also many students that openly dismiss their goals, pointing out the low likelihood of them actually impacting administrative decisions. Regardless of whether its actions lead to immediate changes in the school’s policies or not, Divest McGill has demonstrated the importance of student mobilization to encourage transparency by the administration.
A key issue that Divest McGill aimed to address with its latest campaign was the lack of student engagement the BoG sought in their decision-making process, along with their failure to be transparent. The BoG’s verdict to reject divestment was made in a closed meeting, with the identities of the members of the Committee to Advise Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), which released a report on the issue, left anonymous. This is not the first time the administration has failed to engage students in its decision-making process. Last year, it abruptly shut down the discussion about women’s-only hours at the Fitness Centre, despite the fact that there were talks of compromise underway between students and McGill Athletics.
As a consequence of the pressure exerted by Divest McGill last week, an agreement has been reached to hold a series of open forums to discuss CAMSR’s recommendations. This is a good start to ensuring that the voices of McGill students will be a bigger factor in the administration’s decision making process in the future.
Furthermore, these most recent events have once again raised discussions as to how the university should approach political issues. Fortier’s response to the failed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement motion made it clear that the administration does not believe McGill should take a stance on divisive political topics. This is a sentiment that is echoed by many students as well, which culminated in the proposal to give the steering committee the ability to ban the proposal of “divisive” and “external” motions at the General Assembly. Such dissatisfaction is reasonable; however, setting aside the debate about whether it’s in the students’ best interest for McGill to take a political stance, Divest McGill has demonstrated that the university can make a substantial impact when it does decide to do so. Even as an individual group—albeit one that is backed by many faculties, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS)—Divest McGill has been able to make a notable external impact with its campaigns, receiving significant attention as well as endorsements from various sources and organizations.
In order for the McGill community to fully mobilize the kind of influence that was demonstrated by Divest McGill, the student body must rally together to put pressure on the administration to make concrete steps in support of a political goal. To this end, the conversation on campus must be shifted from whether the school should take a stance on divisive issues, to how the student body can better reach a consensus so that the issue is no longer considered divisive. Just as it is in everyone’s right to reject certain political ideas, it is also the right of student activist groups to continue to present arguments to change their views. In many ways, Divest McGill has had considerable successes in regards to communicating their mission. Over the years, the group has earned endorsements from many different faculties, staff, and students. This year, the group was able to gather enough support to create a concrete—albeit small—impact on the administration. Continuing this trend, Divest McGill may be able to set the blueprint for successful student activism at the university.