Students at a Divest McGill rally in Montreal, Quebec.

Katie Ross

How students in Canada are pushing universities to divest from fossil fuels

On December 5th, 2019, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia released a statement declaring a climate emergency and committed to a full divestment of their endowment in fossil fuels. However, that same day, on the other side of Canada in Montreal, Quebec, McGill University once again rejected divestment after students brought it to the table for the 3rd time in 7 years. 

At many Canadian universities in between the two cities and beyond, university governance is feeling the pressure from students to divest their endowments from fossil fuels.

Hearing about injustices committed against marginalized communities around the globe as a result of these extractive industries is what prompted Katie Ross, a student at McGill University, to get involved with the movement Divest McGill in Montreal, Quebec.

Canadian universities possess significant endowments ranging in size from 250 million to just over a billion Canadian dollars. Many of these universities have already divested from companies involved in apartheid in South Africa, as well as the tobacco industry. 

Yet amidst a climate emergency, these institutions continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry – and students are rising to challenge this through divestment campaigns across the country.

In dorms, libraries, and classrooms across the country, weekly meetings, primarily led by female-identifying students, take place to strategize: how do we get our university to divest from fossil fuels?

Students occupy a Board of Governors Endowment Responsible Investment Policy committee meeting at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Kate Hodgson

“We need everyone for everything: we need people to make art, press releases, and join blockades, for example,” says Watts. 

However, the first step among many of these divestment groups is to gain broader student support to give legitimacy to the campaign beyond the core group of students. Watts incorporated the call for divestment in the university’s orientation for first year students, welcoming freshmen to the University of Victoria with the question: “Did you know that this university has 40 million dollars invested in the fossil fuel industry?”

The next step is to convince those who govern the endowments to vote in favour of divestment. This takes a good understanding of the bureaucratic processes of university administration in order to advocate for change within them. “We had to learn how to speak their language,” says Rachel Cheang, climate organizer at UBCC350 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Groups like UBCC350 organized research meetings, ultimately finding that economic evidence to support divestment resonates best with the administration. “We completed literature reviews of successful divestment cases [to] be able to justify that divestment is financially feasible, prudent, and that if we continue to invest in fossil fuels, they will become stranded assets,” says Rachel Cheang. 

For many universities, full divestment still seems to be far on the horizon. However, student groups continue to relentlessly place pressure on the institutions they are embedded within to think critically about where their money is going. 

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem,” says Zoe Peres of QBAC: Queen’s [University] Backing Action on Climate Change in Kingston, Ontario.