Students are leading the charge for university divestment

Across Canada, campus groups are placing pressure on their institutions to cut financial ties with the fossil fuel industry

When Juliet Watts was approached by a pair of classmates to revive a student-led environmental group at the University of Victoria, she was feeling down about the future of the planet.

Watts was enrolled in an introductory environmental studies course during her first semester at UVic in 2017. Rather than discussing the solutions to prevent it, Watts felt hopeless listening to the problems climate change was causing.

Despite both faculty and students advocating in favour of fossil fuel divestment—the movement of financial assets away from fossil fuel companies—in the past, there were few active student-led initiatives around environmentalism at the time.

In May 2014, 66 per cent of UVic faculty voted in favour of calling on the university to divest the millions of dollars it had invested in companies with ties to the fossil fuel industry. One year later, in 2015, 77 per cent of students called for divestment in a referendum.

Divest UVic, a club founded in 2013, held public demonstrations and discussions with the university administration in the years preceding the vote but had been largely stagnant since.

In 2018, recognizing the ongoing lack of advocacy and action taken toward fulfilling the faculty and student mandates, Watts and her classmates Gillian Willey and Lena Price joined Divest UVic and gathered together to figure out how they could further the movement.

For Watts, the Divest UVic restart was a chance to take concrete action on campus. Sitting on the floor of Wiley and Price’s apartment that winter, Watts sketched out their first meeting plans on the back of pizza boxes.

Little did they know that their decision to jumpstart Divest UVic would spark lasting impacts.

In February 2021, UVic announced it had fully divested a $256-million working capital fund from fossil fuels, moved $80 million into a bond focusing on low-carbon investments, and invested $10 million into a renewable power impact fund that will track the carbon emissions saved by removing investments in the fossil fuel industry.

The growing student climate movement

After UVic announced its divestment plans in February, the university joined other Canadian institutions that pledged to divest including Guelph, Concordia, Lakehead, UBC, and UQAM.

Across the country, students have been at the forefront of pressuring universities to divest, but maintaining the momentum of clubs can be hard. Students come and go with enrollment and graduation, and the motivation of a single year doesn’t always pass on to the next.

The year 2019 proved to be a major one in igniting youth climate activism, guided by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s rise to prominence. Inspired by Thunberg’s speech in September 2019 to the United Nations about the dangers of climate change, students from across the globe took to the streets to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change disaster.

In Victoria, Watts capitalized on the public fervour, and a series of climate demonstrations were held by a reinvigorated Divest UVic, supported by the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS). Hundreds of UVic students skipped class to join a reported 20,000 protesters at the B.C. legislature in solidarity with activists across the world.

In a phone interview with The Pigeon, Watts said she felt incredibly privileged in her position as lead organizer and member of the UVSS to help lead those events.

Watts is also an elected member of UVic’s Board of Governors and told The Pigeon she doesn’t speak on behalf of the entire board.

Even with large swaths of support, she found forward momentum hard to sustain as a student organizer.

“Social movements have to go through periods of building, then there’s a peak, and there’s always a period of rest afterwards,” Watts said. She added that the divest and climate strike movements are good examples of that struggle.

Events like the ones that unfolded in September 2019 can draw out large vocal groups of people. However, sometimes the drive to carry on that strength can result in student organizers experiencing burnout.

“It’s exhausting,” Watts said. “What’s key is to have [students] understand that student movements are often generational. A student movement doesn’t come around for seven years because there’s one or two students who are leading it the whole time.”

The Divest campaign goes national

Watts isn’t alone. Across Canada, students were inspired to join their campus divestment groups, inspired by seeing global youth action.

After moving eight hours away from home to start studying at McGill University in 2019, Laine McCrory was inspired by witnessing fellow students fight for what they believed in and seeing Divest McGill’s on-campus presence.

She joined the group during her second year at McGill in the fall of 2020 after feeling like she didn’t have a voice to fight climate change and influence universities that invested in fossil fuels.

“I joined [Divest McGill] because I felt like I could get that voice, and I could get the opportunity to share with the administration and students themselves how important it is to care about our future,” McCrory said to The Pigeon.

Divest McGill was founded in 2012, and, like Divest UVic, it’s a member of the Divest Canada Coalition, a group founded last summer encompassing 19 student-led university and college divest movements, from Victoria to Halifax.

Sophia Price, who founded the Divest Canada Coalition last summer, said the momentum to form the group came from reaching out individually to different divestment leaders at universities across the country.

“I was talking to so many different schools and passing around messages. People were like, ‘Oh what’s happening at [UVic]? What’s happening with UBC?’” Price said.

“I was like, ‘Why am I passing this around? Why don’t we all sit down and chat?’ So it started out as a group chat […] and then it turned into the Coalition.”

Students continue to act despite the pandemic

Zahur Ashrafuzzaman knew he had to get involved with Divest McGill after witnessing the September 2019 climate movements.

“[At] the September 27th march in Montreal, we had over half a million people in the streets, and there was a huge feeling of energy,” Ashrafuzzaman said to The Pigeon. “After that, a lot of the momentum died down.”

Ashrafuzzaman said the launch of the Divest Canada Coalition helped ramp up momentum in the months that followed. Divest McGill joined the 18 other members of the Coalition in an open letter last September calling on Canadian universities to divest from fossil fuels.

Over the years, Ashrafuzzaman said, Divest McGill has visited administration buildings on campus and held demonstrations to spread their messaging. However, during COVID-19, they found boycotts were an efficient way to act in a physically-distanced manner. The group launched a petition to boycott Metro grocery stores in February, as the vice-chair on McGill’s Board of Governors is also on Metro’s Board of Directors, to advocate for their divestment platform.

“It’s important to have that diversity of tactics,” Ashrafuzzaman said. “Fossil fuel divestment is part of a larger movement.”

Next steps for campus climate action

Ultimately, Watts said organizing to encourage university divestment gives students more than protest experience. She explained that fossil fuel divestment clubs can act as “gateways” to introduce students to other ideas like capitalism and colonization, and how those topics intersect with environmentalism.

“Part of the strength of the movement is about this dynamic and populous force that it brings to campuses,” she said. “It also teaches people to organize [while] introducing [them] to climate justice, Indigenous solidarity, and intersectional organizing.”

Watts hopes to see more going forward from UVic following its divestment announcement. She co-wrote an article for the National Observer that applauded the initiative but called on the university to continue its efforts and further divest a $440-million endowment led by a board with members who have ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

Before joining Divest McGill, McCrory had knowledge about the environmental movement, but not much about what divestment meant.

Five months after joining the club, she found her confidence by understanding the issue and advocating for change—which wouldn’t have happened without her student-led group, and the others across the country.

“I can thank the [Divest McGill] team for that, and the openness of the divestment movement itself,” said McCrory.

“It’s not just a McGill-wide movement, it’s a Canada-wide movement.”

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