Guest post by Hannah McCormick of Divest Concordia
During Concordia’s reading week, two McGill students and three Concordia Students, including myself, made our way from frozen Montreal to the thawing state of Pennsylvania. We had been invited to attend the conference at Swarthmore College on the topic of Divestment. “Divestment” in this context specifically means the “de-investing” of the school’s endowment funds from any shares in the 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies in North America.
The concept of “divestment” had been turning in the minds of many students since mid October, where many activists attended the Powershift Conference, a nation-wide conference held in Ottawa. The conference included many indigenous speakers coming from frontline communities, as well as famous environmentalists such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. The weekend conference educated participants on the power dynamics inherent in the systems in which we operate each day. Participants learned how these dynamics affect the furthering environmental justice. This conference culminated with a Halloween themed protest, urging the federal government to “divest” subsidies from the fossil fuel industry.
When contemplating power dynamics, the question of money quickly arises: where is the money and what is it doing? The answer partially has to do with a government that is heavily subsidizing the fossil fuel industry but there are many other actors at play. During the conference in Pennsylvania we focused on the role of the university. The money subsidizing the fossil fuel industry is also in our schools.
Both from my personal research, extensive discussion, and during the conference I learned about the significance of the support of academic institutions for industry. To begin, there is precedent for the success of divestment campaigns. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, students across North America fought to divest from industries implicated in South African Apartheid. After a laborious fight, many universities responded, and their message was heard. It has been proven that divestment campaigns have been successful before and therefore are likely to be again. .
Some participants in the conference, such as the Harvard students, were challenging billion dollar investments. Some students, including us Concordians, were considering a few million. The conclusion was that the amount in question did not matter- the goal of divestment is not first and foremost to bankrupt the industry. The act of withdrawing your investment from an industry sends the message that the investor no longer believes that the industry is one that will continue. It is sending a message that the industry is dying.
In addition,universities like Concordia are respected for the expertise in the faculty as well as for the potential in the student body. This combination of the existing knowledge of specialists and the growing young leaders gives tremendous importance to the decisions of academic institutions. If the message is clear and united across the academic world, industry and the community at large will be affected. It will become clear that the atrocities of the fossil fuel industry against the health of the frontline communities, against the environment, and in the impending climate crisis, are being taken seriously.
During the three days on the Swarthmore College campus, my understanding on the subject of divestment deepened, my feelings of solidarity and respect for frontline communities affected by the decisions our university is making grew, and my empowerment as a campus organizer and activist unfolded. Throughout the days of returning to Montreal, I was aware of the power behind the young and growing group of Divest Concordia, and all the Divest Campaigns across North America. We have strategy, tactics, goals and a timeline all thoroughly discussed and noted in detail. I feel prepared to open dialogue with senior administration and the board of governors on this topic. I feel encouraged by the exciting information that our president Alan Shepard was himself part of a divestment campaign against South African Apartheid as a student.
Most importantly, I have learned about the necessity for including those groups who are least heard and most affected by industry into the dialogue. Hearing from Crystal Lameman, proud mother from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, that her community was sick and dying from the environmental degradation of Northern Alberta by the tar sands, an area claimed by the federal government to be uninhabited, it is hard not to react. Those organising and supporting the countless Divestment Campaigns will be working tirelessly to make sure of it.