Students Campaign for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Post-secondary students across the country are looking at their schools’ investment choices and asking for change. Megan Nourse reports on the Fossil Free Canada campaign.

What was most significant about the year 2012? According to Cameron Fenton, National Director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC), last year climate change became a glaring reality.

What was most significant about the year 2012? According to Cameron Fenton, National Director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC), last year climate change became a glaring reality.

This reality began with an article penned by climate activist Bill McKibben that appeared in Rolling Stone last July. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” prompted a United States-wide tour ending in November 2012, bluntly expressing the numbers we can no longer afford to ignore. McKibben visited college campuses and urged attendees to “do the math” on the reality of fossil fuel numbers. The next phase of the movement is Go Fossil Free – a call for divestment from companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels.

The movement quickly spread across the US, with more than 200 schools adopting student-run campaigns, and has also landed here in Canada. The CYCC is calling for students and alumni to lobby university administrations to divest their endowments from fossil fuel-related companies.

The movement in the US has targeted 200 companies from which to divest. Here in Canada, three big ones have been added to the list: Enbridge, TransCanada and KinderMorgan.

The movement will hopefully bring students’ attention to exactly how university administrations are spending their money, and motivate them to question their schools’ investments. A university endowment is the total value of the institution’s investment portfolio that is used to fund things like pensions, scholarships and lectures.

A surprising number of Canadian institutions invest in fossil fuel-related companies, and student-driven divestment campaigns are already well underway at several postsecondary schools across the country.

Students at McGill University formed Divest McGill in October 2012. The initiative presented the school’s Board of Governors with two petitions and a combined 750 signatures. McGill, which holds a nearly $1-billion endowment (one of the largest in Canada), currently invests approximately $56-million in publicly traded companies involved in fossil fuel extraction.

McGill hasn’t budged on their investing practices yet, but the institution has formed a social responsibility committee that will investigate the issue and potentially recommend a divestment after their scheduled meeting on March 12. The university is required to form a committee when presented with 300 signatures that contest an investment.

Divest McGill continues to collect signatures and campaign to bring student awareness to the university’s investments. Divest McGill member Bronwen Tucker stated in a press release from CYCC that “divestment is one of many tools that needs to be used in order to raise awareness and shift from our dependency on [fossil fuels].”

McGill is not the only campus with a divestment campaign. Students at the University of New Brunswick recently created an online petition and, according to their website, they will be meeting with the university’s president in March. McMaster students started a divestment petition after an article in the student-run newspaper, The Silhouette, profiled three Hamilton residents’ push to have Macleans magazine include an “ethical investment” ranking in their annual university issue. Students from Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia and University of Toronto have also launched campaigns to urge administrations to divest. 

Fenton notes that divestment alone is not going to be a final solution to climate change, but “by going after the economic power and social license of the industry that is fuelling the climate crisis, we might have a chance to build a more sustainable future.”

Find the tools to start or join a Fossil Free campaign on your school’s campus and learn more about other schools who are already on board at gofossilfree.ca.

Alumni are also invited to join: check out the resources page for a sample alumni letter to send your alma mater.

Megan is A\J’s editorial manager, a lover of journalism, and graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment.