McGill’s Petrocultures 2014 conference faced criticism last Friday, when participants were forced to relocate following an occupation of the Faculty Club by a group called “LockOut Petrocultures.” Later that day, student campaign group Divest McGill demonstrated outside the conference as well.
At 8:00 a.m., approximately 30 members of the Montreal community group occupied the Faculty Club, interrupting nearly one and a half hours of the conference. Due to the occupation, the conference was temporarily relocated to Redpath Hall.
Mona Luxion, an Urban Planning Ph.D. candidate and media relations officer for LockOut Petrocultures, said that the group planned the disruption to question the effectiveness of the conference.
“Staging a debate [where] fossil fuel company executives have equal say as potential critics is reinforcing the status quo; it’s not moving us forward,” she said. “We really wanted to challenge this idea that this is a debate that should be happening, and really push towards concrete actions that gets [McGill] out of the business of fossil fuels.”
Petrocultures was hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), which organizes conferences on a wide variety of topics, changing from year to year. This year’s event drew participants from the arts, social sciences, sciences, and engineering from across Canada to speak on the consequences of reliance on fossil fuels and to discuss responsible alternatives
“Petrocultures 2014 will bring together leading figures to discuss and debate the role of oil and energy in shaping social, cultural, and political life in Canada at present and in the future,” the conference program reads. “[The] event involv[es] a diverse group of speakers from across Canada.”
Members of Divest McGill, a student campaign group against university investment in fossil fuel industries, attended the conference as participants but also expressed support for the occupiers. In the Divest McGill demonstration that same day, protestors chanted in support of divestment and invited members of the community to envision a future without reliance on fossil fuels.
“[The conference] purport[s] to be really non-partisan, but in reality they had two hour-long sessions from people from oil companies or from energy boards, and had very clear, vested interests,” Bronwen Tucker, Divest McGill coordinator, said. “There was not a single grassroots Indigenous activist. They just didn’t do a proper job at representing the whole spectrum.”
However, William Straw—professor and director of the MISC—noted that 17 of the 26 speakers at the conference were activists. These included five people from Indigenous communities who work on the impact of fossil fuels, although two had to withdraw at the last minute due to personal reasons.
“To the accusation that the conference offered a false ‘balance,’ I will simply point to the overwhelming representation of environmental activists,” Straw said. “To the accusation—made before the conference had begun—that we were going to debate ‘climate change’ as if it were an unsettled issue, I will note that no one at the conference, with the possible exception of [one attendee], challenged the reality of climate change.”
Luxion said the occupation achieved their goals of critiquing and interrupting the conference.
“I think we led people to question the starting point [of the conference], in addition to actually having a material impact in terms of forcing the conference to move,” she said.
Straw said that he was disappointed that attempts to communicate with the occupiers were ineffective.
“We hoped to talk to the occupiers, and several participants […] made an effort to speak to them,” Straw said. “That wasn’t successful.”
Straw maintained that he was pleased with the conference’s turnout this year, and that the protests would not impact future conferences.
“Building a conference is a multi-month process of awaiting responses, last minute withdrawals, pressures from various quarters, and disappointments,” he said. “Given all this, I’m pleased with what we came up with.”
Just to set things straight, #LockOutPetrocultures wasn’t protesting a lack of representation of their views at the conference; they were protesting the idea of having an abstract, academic debate on something so devastating as fossil fuel extraction and climate change. The point was to shut down the very idea that people like Ezra Levant and Cenovus should get a platform to spout their propaganda that continues to destroy the lives and land of indigenous and marginalized communities.