Approximately 20 members of Divest McGill, Climate Justice Action McGill (C-JAM), and Greenpeace McGill blocked all five entrances to the James Administration Building from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm on Feb. 18, demanding that the university divest from TC Energy, the company behind the controversial Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. The pipeline is being constructed through unceded Wet’suwe’ten territory in British Columbia (BC), which has sparked outrage from Indigenous activists and allies. As of Sept. 2019, McGill owned $6.6 million in TC Energy shares.
Divest member Laura Mackey described their confrontation with Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier and members of the Board of Governors’ Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) when the committee arrived at the building for a scheduled meeting.
“[Fortier] was very surprised,” Mackey said. “There was a [CAMSR] meeting this morning that was supposed to happen at [9:00 am] in this building [….] But once those people on the committee came and saw the building was blockaded, they had to move their meeting [to another location].”
While there were members of the McGill Security Services on site, security reinforcements arrived in about 10 minutes after Divest McGill began the blockade. Divest members stood inside the doors of the building and believe that Security Services were ordered to lock the doors to prevent them from speaking to the media personnel outside. Activists communicated with The McGill Tribune via text message, as Security Services barred people from re-entering the building.
Divest member Laura Doyle Pean, 1L Law, was positioned at one of the lobbies of the James Administration building. They stated that Divest members came prepared with paper handouts detailing the reasons for the blockade.
“We had prepared a lot of handouts to give to people to explain why we were doing the actions and what our demands were, because the goal [of the protest] was also for people to know what was going on and to know about McGill’s investment in TC energy,” Pean said. “We still have lots [of handouts] because we were not able to have that contact with employees of the building.”
Despite being aware of the disciplinary measures, Pean emphasized that the risks posed to members of Divest are lower than the land defenders’ on the front lines of the situation in Wet’suwet’en.
“We know that we might be facing disciplinary measures, but we think it is a risk that is worth taking considering that people are being kicked out of their [homes] in Wet’suwet’en […] because of the Coastal Gas Link project,” Pean said. “We think it is a small risk to face considering what is happening. It is one that is necessary if we choose to show support.”
Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President University Affairs Madeline Wilson was also present inside the James Administration Building, acting as a liaison between the students and McGill’s administration and Security Services. Wilson spoke with both Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Yves Beauchamp and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau at 9:30 am to explain the situation.
While confrontations did happen with some employees trying to enter the building, Divest member Cailean Oikawa, U1 Science, explained that other staff members were supportive.
“We did have a lot of allies in the building,” Oikawa said. “There were a lot of employees that made it very known to us that they were supportive of our actions and that they loved seeing the determination and passion we have for our movement. They wished us the best of luck.”
Oikawa highlighted Divest McGill’s broader goal of advocating for Wet’suwet’en land defenders.
“We never go into these things expecting McGill to meet demands fully [or] immediately,” Oikawa said. “But, we were successful in getting our message out to McGill staff, McGill students, the larger divest movement in Canada, and the conversation [around] what is happening in BC.”