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Divest McGill forms coalition, writes open letter with 18 divestment groups across Canada

The Divest Canada Coalition, a consortium of climate action groups at 19 Canadian universities, penned an open letter in September 2020 calling on universities across the country to divest from fossil fuels.

The coalition’s demands centre on divestment, but also address related issues such as the violation of Indigenous sovereignty, the oppression of marginalized communities, and systemic racism in policing.

The letter calls for full divestment of funds from companies that extract, process, and transport fossil fuels by 2025. It emphasizes that nothing short of complete divestment is acceptable, and demands that universities put at least five per cent of its funds towards community investments that “advance racial, economic, environmental, and social justice.”

Divest McGill organizer Zahur Ashrafuzzaman, U1 Arts and Science, believes that the new coalition will connect divestment groups and help to build a collective power.

“This is the first time that this many universities have come together to form a real concrete coalition which we can use as a platform […] to get the ball rolling on a national level,” Ashrafuzzaman said. “We’re calling for a just recovery from COVID-19, where we want [universities] to start investing in communities and divesting from these corporations, industries, and institutions that cause people harm. [This means] the fossil fuel industry, but also [systems] like the police and the prison industrial complex.”

Since 2012, Divest McGill has focussed its advocacy towards the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), the Board of Governors committee which has failed to recommend that McGill divest three times. The Post-Graduate Students’ Society, the Students’ Society of McGill University, the McGill Faculty of Arts, and the McGill Association of University Teachers all take the position that McGill should divest. 

Divest McGill’s tactics to lobby the administration have included rallies and direct actions. In February 2020, the group obstructed the James Administration building to put pressure on CAMSR and push for fossil fuel divestment.

SSMU President Jemark Earle is the only McGill student on CAMSR. He has been communicating with Divest McGill to understand how to use his position to amplify their voices.

“I wholeheartedly agree with the points raised in the open letter that was co-signed by Divest McGill,” Earle wrote to The McGill Tribune. “McGill is falling behind in comparison to institutions that have committed to full fossil fuel divestment.”

The new Divest Canada Coalition more closely links Divest McGill to climate action groups across the country. Clara Sismondo, an organizer with Climate Justice University of British Columbia, explained how the letter demands that universities use the pandemic as a catalyst for transformative social change.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are both symptoms of colonial, capitalist, and white supremacist systems,” Sismondo wrote to the Tribune

. “For us, COVID-19 is a stark reminder that we need massive system change.”

In June 2020, McGill and other major Canadian universities signed the Investing to Address Climate Change Charter (IACCC), a resolution that aims to address environmental sustainability with respect to endowment funds, which universities use to generate revenue through investment. 

While the IACCC symbolically places limitations on McGill’s investments, the document sets no concrete restrictions. It only suggests that signatories will “measure” the carbon intensity of investments, “evaluate” their progress, and commit to reducing fossil fuel investments over time.

Pierre Boisseau, McGill’s Senior Director of Institutional Communications, wrote to the Tribune on behalf of Principal Suzanne Fortier. He did not directly address Divest Canada’s open letter. 

“[The IACCC] is just one of the many ways universities are working to address climate change,” Boisseau wrote. “McGill […] has already committed to an ambitious plan of actions that involves its investments, academic mission, operations, governance and management, [including] decarbonization of the McGill Investment Pool [….] [The university] is aiming to achieve a 33 per cent carbon emission reduction of its public equity portfolio versus its equity benchmark by 2025.”

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