On February 15th, Laval University made history by becoming the first university in Canada to commit to divest from all fossil fuel companies. Laval University’s administration agreed to take a stand against the industry after only four months of pressure from the student association ULaval Sans Fossiles.
Commenting on the success of her team, Alice-Anne Simard, leader of the student association, highlighted the words of Éric Bauce, executive vice rector in charge of sustainable development, when he said “instead of first seeing if divesting was possible before committing, the university should make the commitment first and then find a way to achieve their goal”. The questions then become… How to make it happen? In what time frame will it be done? We all know it is easier said than done. But at least Laval has made the commitment, and judging by their track record, the actions will follow.
The determination to move the University towards a more sustainable future is there. Laval University did not just make history for its decision to divest. The campus massively reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at source, offsetting remaining emissions with carbon credits. In 2016, Laval ranked 2nd on the international Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System…ranking once again before all other Canadian Universities. At Laval University the administration gets behind audacious student organizations, empowering them to actually make change happen at a local level: Hydroponic agriculture, campus-made-beer, campus-made-cheese and student-driven cafeterias are just some of the projects currently in place.
Conversely, at McGill, no matter how invested its students are, change is a slow and litigious process between administration and progressive visions for the campus. Divest McGill was one of the first campus divestment campaigns in Canada, launching its first petitions to the university administration as early as 2012. Divest McGill has used both official channels and public venues to ask the university to divest from fossil fuels. Through McGill’s internal processes students have advocated strongly that fossil fuels are causing social injury through direct contributions to climate change, but also through harmful extractive practices. Unfortunately, the board of governors and the Committee for Advising on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) failed to link climate changing industries to great social harm, stating that “the most pronounced and harmful effects of climate change have not yet been experienced, and may not happen” (Section V of the CAMSR report). In response, McGill Faculty for Divestment wrote:
“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.”
Publicly the campaign has garnered support from representative bodies for all students, as well as from many staff and faculty. Some professors have even commented that McGill is failing at basic stakeholder engagement in responding to its students and alumni. Yet, despite years of mounting public pressure from the McGill community and clear evidence that fossil fuel industries are contributing to climate change and driving social injury, the McGill administration is constant in its refusal to divest.
There is a clear difference between the path to sustainability that the two institutions decided to follow: While Laval embraces student-driven sustainability approaches, McGill takes an adversarial approach to student voices. Laval’s students have felt empowered and have played an active role in creating an institution that is a pioneer of sustainability, community initiatives and student leadership. By contrast, students at McGill have felt disillusioned with their institution and have felt that acts of civil disobedience are the only way to have their voices heard. While this eventually can lead to institutional change, it is clear that a responsive administration that welcomes the energy, vision, and commitment of its student body is one that can set its institution apart from the rest and truly make a difference in the transition towards a more sustainable future.
Aurélie-Zia is an E4A PhD student in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University. She is a member of the Quebec Bar since January 2013 and she holds an LLM from Laval University and a Master 2, from both Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) & Paris 2 (Panthéon-Assas). Her research focuses on law and governance in the sector of mineral and energy resources in Canada.
Emery Hartley is an E4A Master’s student in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University. He has a BSc Environment from McGill with a focus on Biodiversity and Conservation. He has worked in British Columbia with local First Nations on issues related to mining and forest conservation actions.