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Canada's Largest University Prepares for Backlash After Refusing to Drop Fossil Fuel Investments

As Canada's biggest university adds itself to the growing list of institutions rejecting the idea of divesting from fossil fuel companies, students leading divestments campaigns on campuses across are vowing to adopt stronger measures.
Photo via UofT350 Facebook page

As Canada's biggest university adds itself to the growing list of institutions rejecting the idea of divesting from fossil fuel companies, students leading divestments campaigns on campuses across are vowing to adopt stronger measures to achieve their goals.

The University of Toronto's (U of T) decision, released on Wednesday as part of a 43-page report called Beyond Divestment, comes days after Montreal's McGill University similarly rejected calls for it to pull its investments out of fossil fuel industries. That move prompted student protests and a sit-in at the university's principal's office that's gone on for two days.


Fearing a similar backlash on its doorstep in Toronto, the president's office at U of T locked its doors on Wednesday as a precaution, according to an email leaked by the campuses' student branch of

— U of Toronto 350 (@UofT350)March 30, 2016

U of T spokesperson, Althea Blackburn-Evans wouldn't confirm whether the email came from the president's office, but told VICE News, "it's proceeding with caution … reflecting related activities at other universities."

"It's not a reflection of the president's availability and openness to talk about the topic with members of the community," she added.

Instead of divesting, U of T president Meric Gertler announced on Wednesday morning the university would consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns with future investment decisions.

"Activists are certainly looking for universities to lead and I hope that they will see this plan as a very strong response," Gertler told the Globe and Mail on Wednesday.

On top of U of T and McGill, major universities across Canada, including UBC, Calgary and Dalhousie universities have also rejected calls for divestment. UBC and Simon Fraser University, both of which have vocal student divestment campaigns, have attempted to make concessions by adopting ESG goals for their investments. And in 2014, Concordia University, in Quebec, created a $5 million fossil-free fund.

Related: Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign Scores Two New Victories


But Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, divestment coordinator at UofT 350, said in interview that these rejections disconnected from large numbers of people from the broader university community who have been calling for outright divestment.

This includes an advisory committee composed of faculty and students who released a report in December urging the university divest from any companies that "blatantly disregard" the environment. According to the report from U of T, the university's asset management corporation does not have any "direct investments" in the companies the committee said exacerbated climate change in its report.

"We're definitely escalating now," said Harvey Sanchez. "Part of why this rejection is so appalling is that we have the support of all the major groups on campus."

"One of the good things about this is that, having all of that support, we're gathering with all of those groups to talk about ways that we can address this horrible decision."

She wouldn't elaborate about how the student groups would react, saying only that "there will be stuff happening soon."

"There are people around the world who are dying already because of climate change and U of T is putting out flowery statements that are poorly inadequate. That's really shameful," she added.

Like Harvey-Sanchez, Kristen Perry, a member at Divest McGill, said that the recent rejection of divestment by major universities in Canada is galvanizing supporters of the movement.


"Even if divestment hasn't happened yet, we have seen a lot of success with our goals," Perry said. "We would obviously prefer for universities to stand on the right side of history, but it's actually making more people come over to our side and support us."

She added that the students will continue their sit-in at the administration building indefinitely.

While the divestment movement has been gaining steam across university campuses and other institutions around the world — the Rockefeller Family Fund divested from Exxon Mobil Corp. last week — there's debate over whether university divestments would matter much.

Kevin Milligan, an economics professor at UBC, told the Globe last year that when a group divests, another investor could just as easily buy that share at a lower price. Plus, he questioned why the movement was so critical of producers, when it's consumers who drive the demand in the first place.

"If there were not consumers, no one would be digging the oil out of the ground," he said. "The only reason it has value is because people want to buy stuff. So I don't see why all the moral culpability is on the producers side."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne