McGill Faculty & Librarians for Divestment

“Our Future – Our Choice” – Fossil-Fuel Divestment and Peaceful Protest at McGill

In the wake of the Board of Governors decision to deny Divest McGill’s petition calling for divestment of the University’s endowment from the fossil-fuel industry, members of the organization have elected to engage in peaceful protest action to press their case.

Under the banner of “Our Future – Our Choice,” these dedicated students have deposited themselves in the foyer to the Principal’s office, and in Community Square, so that they might be heard. They make three demands:

  • That the University hold public hearings on the discredited report of the Committee to Advise on Matter of Social Responsibility (CAMSR).
  • That CAMSR publicly discloses all expert testimony gathered in the course of its consideration of the petition.
  • That Principal Fortier makes a statement acknowledging what the CAMSR Report shockingly did not: the activities of fossil fuel corporations cause grave social harm, through the exacerbation of climate change and the devastating impacts on frontline communities.

In short, they are asking for informed public discussion (of the sort that should have preceded the Board’s decision), they are asking for transparency, and they are asking for reason. The question we should ask ourselves as supporters of Divest McGill is: is this too much to ask?

McGill Faculty & Librarians for Divestment continues to support Divest McGill in its efforts to achieve the outcome of divestment, including its recent peaceful protest actions. We also appreciate that many of those who signed our original letter endorsing the divestment petition might feel differently, and so we would like to set out the reasons for our ongoing support of these students.

What justifies resort to peaceful protest as a political tactic? Typically, justification for such action combines a sense of overriding imperative concerning the end that protestors hope to achieve and clear indication that this end could not be achieved through established mechanisms of institutional representation and decision-making. These conditions cannot simply be asserted by those undertaking protest; they must be demonstrated, such that reasonable people would agree that protest is the only remaining option.

These are demonstrably the conditions under which Divest McGill has resorted to protest.

Few reasonable people would dispute the fact that global-warming is a pressing crisis, or that the fossil-fuel industry exacerbates it and its attendant harms through ongoing, unlimited extractive activity. Yet, CAMSR has found that the fossil–fuel industry is not the source of significant social injury in the form of gravely-injurious impacts on the environment. To quote

the Report: “the most pronounced and harmful effects of climate change have not yet been experienced, and may not happen” (Section V). This is the logic that has guided the Board in its decision to continue investing in this industry, and thereby to continue investing in global warming and the harm it causes, harm of an unprecedented magnitude. It also contributes to a political climate in which activity that should be unacceptable – unlimited fossil-fuel extraction – is tolerated as a viable way of doing business. It is for these reasons that divestment from the fossil-fuel industry is demonstrably imperative.

It is also clear that the students of Divest McGill have been patient and conscientious in following the institutional process set out for determining the ethical status of the University’s investments. They have submitted petitions to the appropriate governing bodies. Their second petition, falling squarely within the terms of reference of the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility, was accompanied by a 150-page, evidence-based, meticulously argued brief. They have met with the committee to respectfully answer questions and clarify positions whenever summoned. They have engaged in a comprehensive effort to educate and inform the campus on this matter. They have gathered the formal endorsement of thousands of individual McGill students, multiple student representative bodies, hundreds of faculty and staff members and dozens of McGill alumni. Divest McGill has made countless presentations as part of the global movement for climate justice. In 2015, they were awarded a Catalyst Award by the McGill Office of Sustainability. They have played by the rules.

What do they have to show for it?

The Board of Governors is the first and only body at McGill to vote against the petition on divestment.1 After years of delay, Board members received the confidential CAMSR report one day before the vote was to take place. Requests to release a preliminary report to allow for response from the petitioners and open consultation with the campus community were rejected. The names of parties consulted in private by CAMSR in preparing its report were not disclosed. Divest McGill was not permitted to respond to the testimony of these experts. Nor was any open, public consultation held with the campus community and its various stakeholders. The Board’s discussion and vote on the CAMSR recommendation took place in closed session. It bears noting that the Principal and the Chair of the Board of Governors are also members of CAMSR, which raises questions about the Board’s ability to consider the Committee’s report objectively. The students who submitted the divestment petition and accompanying 150-page research brief were not informed of the presentation of the CAMSR report or the Board vote – they learned of it only when the agenda for the unannounced Board meeting was posted online a few hours before the meeting.

1 Resolutions supporting the divestment petition have been passed by the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Arts, McGill School of Environment, the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, the Students’ Society of McGill University, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society, the MacDonald Campus Students’ Society, the Arts Undergraduate Society and the Association of McGill University Support Employees.

Divest McGill’s decision to resort to peaceful protest should be considered in this light. The legitimacy of even peaceful protest can be questioned when the end it seeks is self-interested or trivial, when those undertaking it have not bothered to follow established processes, and when it is clear that such processes provide a fair and reasonable chance of success. None of this pertains in the case of Divest McGill. The end they seek is imperative, and demonstrably in the public interest. They have followed established procedures to the letter. Yet, the process they undertook in such good faith has unfolded as if none of their efforts mattered at all.

It is truly unfortunate that Divest McGill’s years-long struggle for climate justice at the University has come to this point. Protesting a negative decision is the last thing the students of Divest McGill wanted. What they wanted was for the University they love to live up to its own principles, to match their courage, and to exert moral leadership on this most grave and universal of concerns. They were sorely disappointed. Now, they are acting as they feel they must, in the only way that has been left to them. We should be with them.

30 March 2016

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