Politics

Inside the student-led movements urging Canadian universities to divest from fossil fuels

The University of Victoria divested its working capital fund of fossil fuels after students held a protest at the school’s administrative building (Colin Smith)

The University of Victoria divested its working capital fund of fossil fuels after students held a protest at the school’s administrative building (Colin Smith)

Emily Lowan paced the pavement outside the University of Victoria’s main administrative building, concentrating on removing some stubborn paint from the ground. It was about halfway through November 2020, and for three hours she wielded the humming power-washer she had rented that morning, under gentle orders from campus security to make sure the area was as spotless as she’d found it a few days earlier.

That’s when Lowan had gathered in the same spot with about eight other UVic students and local artist Emily Thiesse to paint a 14-foot mural. The words “President Hall, Time to Divest” were splayed across the ground in stark black lettering, decorated with illustrations of a school of swimming salmon and a wind turbine in shades of blue. The members of Divest UVic, a group of students, faculty and staff, had planned the demonstration as a welcome to incoming university president Dr. Kevin Hall, who had just started working out of his new office in the administrative building.

“We felt like we were fairly limited with what sort of tactics we could use during COVID-19,” says Lowan. “So in some ways, the restrictions allowed us to be more creative and [think] outside the box.”

READ: Six Canadian university students on how they’re fighting climate change 

She left the demonstration feeling that things had gone exceptionally well—Hall had come down twice, first to introduce himself and acknowledge the effort, and later that afternoon to check in on the group’s progress. Lowan was more than happy to clean up, and was heartened by the fact that there were no hard feelings on either side about the mural or its eventual removal. In fact, Hall seemed to welcome the students and their passion for the cause.

Less than two months later, in February 2021, UVic announced that it would be divesting its Working Capital Fund from fossil fuels to the tune of $256 million. “I was just really in shock,” Lowan says. “And so thrilled, because this is the first major breakthrough the divestment campaign has had with the administration, after eight years of campaigning and literally two generations of students fighting for this.”

Across Canada, the student divestment effort has been ramping up, spurred on by inspired organizers at post-secondary institutions from coast to coast. Samuel Taylor, a lead organizer with Climate Action Carleton, describes it as a “snowball effect”—students are growing more frustrated about climate change, and are increasingly wielding their power to do something about it. And while the youth environmental justice movement has been characterized by mass gatherings and enthusiastic in-person meetings—including the 2019 Climate March that brought so many students into the advocacy fold—it transitioned almost seamlessly to social media and digital organizing during the pandemic. In just over a year, at least five schools in Canada pledged to at least partially divest; the University of British Columbia, for example, committed to full divestment, including from its $1.71-billion Main Endowment Fund, in January 2020. Others have brought the matter to their boards to consider for the first time.

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In September 2020, a movement called Divestment Canada Coalition (DCC) launched with a website and a scathing open letter demanding that post-secondary institutions across the country fully divest all investment funds from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in sustainable alternatives by 2025. “Educational institutions are supposed to prepare us for our futures. Instead, they are actively financing their destruction,” the letter reads. “By remaining invested in these industries, Canadian educational institutions are choosing to stand with corporations and their exploitative business models over the well-being of people and the planet.” The DCC is now made up of 30 groups from institutions across the country, making it Canada’s largest group of students calling for divestment from fossil fuels.

UVic had an enthusiastic divestment movement a decade ago, but as passionate students graduated, its popularity began to drop off. Students like Lowan and Julie Watts got it going again a few years ago. “The power of solidarity and knowledge-sharing that happened across movements and divestment campaigns was so integral to reviving the movement in those first few months,” Watts says. “Really learning from other folks who had already done a lot of this work was critical to being able to get [UVic’s campaign] off the ground at the beginning.”

For students on the frontlines of this advocacy work, trying to influence their school’s stance on divestment is an opportunity to influence billions of dollars of investments, hundreds of millions of which are still deeply embedded in the fossil fuel industry. “In some ways, we are a product of the Greta Thunberg movement and era,” says Kathleen Weary, who founded Climate Action Carleton and is now the student union’s president. “I think the 2018-19 momentum shifted from ‘Let’s talk about sustainability and individual actions’ into ‘Youth want to disrupt the entire system, and that’s our only hope.’”

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The post-secondary divestment campaign, which has its roots in the South African anti-apartheid movement, works to persuade universities to sell stocks, bonds and other funds that they’ve invested in the fossil fuel industry, as well as forgo future such investments. The idea is that fewer investments will not only put strain on the sector and force it to eventually pivot to renewable energy, but also make the extraction of fossil fuels from the land less culturally permissible.

The movement in Canada has been around for almost a decade—picking up steam in tandem with those in the U.K. and the U.S.—and has been encouraged since its beginning by 350, a global grassroots movement to end fossil fuel extraction. But Canadian students have only seen real results in the past few years. In 2017, a relatively short student campaign made Quebec’s Laval University the first Canadian post-secondary institution to commit to divest completely from fossil fuels.

“There are students who say, ‘I come to a university that is known for innovation, for climate-related research, green tech research and so on—and then I figure out that our endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies,’ ” says Olaf Weber, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and a member of the university’s Responsible Investment Advisory Group. “The university should also understand that—and, of course, that students are the university’s main stakeholders.”

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Some schools seem to be coming alive to this, but not every student divestment team has found the same level of success as UVic. In February, Carleton joined the University Network for Investor Engagement, a coalition of university endowments and pension plans in Canada that will focus on responsible, climate-friendly investing. Weary says that she is having more frequent conversations with the university about moving away from fossil fuels altogether. But she and Climate Action Carleton’s Taylor would like to see quicker action, given the urgency of the topic.

“The student divestment movement is under no [illusion] that this isn’t an incredibly complicated process,” says Taylor. “And we don’t think that we have a quick fix. But the goal of divestment is political. It is to get these institutions of very high notability and respect in Canada to denounce the fossil fuel industry.”

According to a statement from Carleton, the university is currently reviewing its responsible investing approach, which it has had in place for over a decade. “Carleton University is committed to engaging in discussions with students about our responsible investing approach and how to effectively address climate change concerns within the context of the Endowment,” the statement reads.

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At other schools, progress is slow but steady. After divestment didn’t make it onto a plan that the University of Waterloo put forward in 2020, Truzaar Dordi—a Ph.D. candidate researching climate finance who has been lobbying the school to divest for years—helped collect 2,000 signatures from staff, faculty and students and launched an aggressive Twitter campaign. In response, the university’s president established the Responsible Investment Advisory Group, on which Dordi now sits with Weber. In the coming weeks, he says, they’ll put forward a docket of new recommendations, making Waterloo a sort of “middle of the pack” university on progress toward divestment right now. “It’s super exciting,” Dordi says. “I think it is the first time that we’ve made a real, positive movement on the climate file at Waterloo.”

Emilia Belliveau, an alum of divestment campaigns at both Dalhousie and UVic, cautions that some institutions may not be as forward-thinking as they appear to be. Increasingly common alternatives being offered to full divestment are the environmental, social and governance (ESG) model, “low carbon” investing and alternative “responsible investing” strategies. “We’re seeing divestment come into the mainstream and get repackaged as ESG,” says Belliveau. “And I’d say that has some risk to it, because it’s really diluting some of the powerful asks of divestment.”

The Investing to Address Climate Change charter was announced by the University of Toronto and McGill University in June 2020 and signed by 13 other Canadian universities. It called on signatories to adopt frameworks of responsible investment by incorporating ESG factors, monitor their decarbonization process and share the results publicly. The charter was widely derided by students and others as “greenwashing.” Zahur Ashrafuzzaman, a member of both the Divest Canada Coalition team and Divest McGill, says it spurred DCC’s open letter, which advocates instead for “allocating investment capital into local community projects, such as clean energy, safe and affordable housing, sustainable local agriculture, community wealth co-operatives and worker-owned businesses.”

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“The Investing to Address Climate Change charter is just one of the many commitments and ways the university is working to address climate change,” reads a statement from McGill, which detailed part of the university’s “ambitious plan” to do so, outlined in the 2020-25 Climate and Sustainability Strategy. The university says it is on track to meet its targets to decarbonize its endowment portfolio, and plans to become zero-waste by 2035 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.

A protest at McGill: passing the torch to younger students is crucial to the movement (Courtesy of Mako Sorensen/Media Creative)

A protest at McGill: passing the torch to younger students is crucial to the movement (Courtesy of Mako Sorensen/Media Creative)

University of Toronto Asset Management (UTAM) says it is pleased with the university’s progress on decarbonization (the goal is a 40 per cent carbon footprint reduction of its investment portfolios from 2017 levels by 2040) and considers itself an innovator among universities on this front. “Given the success of our decarbonization efforts thus far, we are currently working together with the leadership of the university to review our decarbonization targets to see if we may be able to achieve even stronger results,” says Chuck O’Reilly, president and chief investment officer of UTAM. “The consideration of environmental, social and governance [ESG] factors is integral to our investment process.”

The DCC also emphasizes the importance of giving people of colour, low-income people, Indigenous communities and others a seat at the table, given how the fossil fuel industry disproportionately affects these groups.“Divestment also rejects the racial and colonial violence propagated by this industry, and works to strengthen movements for justice for BIPOC communities,” its website says. “Educational institutions have enormous power to harness their intellectual and moral authority to help remove social licence from this industry.”

On the bright side, Ashrafuzzaman says COVID added a layer of encouragement. “The status quo has been disrupted,” he says. “And we’re realizing that change is possible, and a better world is possible, so we don’t want to go back to normal.”

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One of the hardest parts of the student divestment movement is the relatively brief amount of time students have to try to make an impact before they graduate. Many students Maclean’s spoke to described feeling that university administrators depend on the turnover of students to delay progress on the issue. That’s why handing down institutional knowledge and passing the torch to younger generations is so crucial to the student effort, veteran advocates say. So what advice do they have for first-year students looking to get involved with the climate movement on their campus?

“[I would] encourage students who are passionate about divestment to run for their student union board,” says Lowan. “Students [on the board] have unique access to meetings and contacts within the administration.”

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Dordi attributes his progress at Waterloo to what he calls the “two-pronged approach”: on-the-ground activism and awareness-building with students; and careful boardroom talk with university administrators. “We’ve worked with the university to find a solution together,” he says. “Part of that was knowing the audience and how to communicate with that audience. When you’re in a room with investment managers, you need to speak their language—and that language is money.” One example could be talking about the fact that investing in fossil fuels is not only morally irresponsible but fiscally unwise. In 2020, fossil fuel companies were once again the stock market’s worst-performing sector.

Watts encourages students to keep at it, even if things feel slow. “That persistence, even when things aren’t exciting, is really, really critical to keeping the momentum going,” she says. Even for students at schools that have committed to full divestment, she says, the fight is far from over as they campaign for a transparent shift to investing in renewable energy and other markers of a clean, just economy.

At UVic, say Lowan and Watts, the next challenge is the long-term investment fund, a $440-million fund which is governed by a foundation and is separate from the Working Capital Fund. But the two students made sure they cheered their massive win in February. “It was really important to us that we celebrated,” Watts says. “I think the two biggest things that I carry with me in the movement are persistence and joy. And I think celebrating wins is something that needs to be able to happen to keep movements going, especially if you don’t [achieve] the full goal in one step.”


This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline,“Demanding divestment.”




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