RBC branch in the UCU
RBC’s presence is not unfamiliar to the University of Ottawa community, as the bank donated $400,000 to the university last March. Photo: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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A new RBC branch has been on campus since 2019, replacing a 24/7 student lounge. Is it the start to a wave of commercialization at the U of O?

A large portion of University of Ottawa students and faculty members have returned to what was once an isolated campus for a partial, in-person semester after spending the last academic year online.

For those who’ve been at the University of Ottawa for a while, the loud frosh events, exciting sports matches, and technical difficulties on campus have brought a fresh, yet nostalgic feel to what has been, for the most part, a ghost town since March 2020. 

However, without needing to be astute observers, many have noticed changes on campus that have left them confused and asking questions. This is not about the shuttered-up Bento Sushi stand, or taped-off study stools to enforce social distancing — but is instead about the pristine Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) branch occupying what was once a prime space for students to study on campus.

Since students left campus an on-campus RBC branch has opened its doors on the second floor of the Jock Turcot University Centre, occupying most of the space that was once held by the 24/7 student lounge. The sudden change has shocked students, who already have limited study spots on campus due to social distancing requirements. 

Louise Summers, RBC’s regional vice president, says the U of O location was selected as a part of the bank’s ‘On Campus’ initiative designed to connect with and support students on campuses across Canada.

“This is our third year on campus and our goal is to be there for students on their journey,” said Summers in an interview. “We strive to be a trusted partner through students’ academic journeys, and our goal is to provide wellness solutions and linking students to strong support systems and connections.”

Katrina is a third-year international development student who is one of many who aren’t fond of or familiar with the new RBC branch on-campus.

“It isn’t necessarily a good use of space [considering that it doesn’t have any banking features],” said Katrina, whose real name is not being used due to privacy concerns. “I think the university could have easily replicated a financial planning service themselves if that was their intended goal, instead of an additional income stream.”

“I feel like there’s definitely a better place to do that,” said first-year linguistics student Quanah Traviss. “I don’t think opening a bank on campus is a horrible idea because I need to be able to go and access [banking services]. But I feel like, in the Student Lounge, there’s definitely more spaces they have available where they could have done that, in my opinion.”

However, RBC’s presence is not unfamiliar to the University of Ottawa community, as the bank donated $400,000 to the university last March. There have also been several workshops and events sponsored by the bank, much of which are held by Campus Vibez uOttawa, the university’s club management service. An example of this could be observed at Saturday’s rugby games, as RBC operated a stand on the sidelines at Matt Anthony Field.

When asked, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) did not distinctly condemn the University’s decision to lease out the student lounge to RBC, but were disappointed they weren’t consulted; they believe a co-governance model for the University Centre should be reintroduced, as was the case with the former student union, Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO). 

“We encourage the University of Ottawa to work hand-in-hand with the UOSU in the future for these decisions, especially as the student union played a key role in building the University Centre several decades ago,” said UOSU president Tim Gulliver in an interview.

“We have proven to be a constructive and reliable partner to make the right decisions for students and protect student spaces, and we are disappointed that the University did not consult us on this decision.”

According to the university, when it comes to “new locations on campus, faculties and/or services [were] included in the consultation process.”

The university was not precise on who exactly was consulted for the RBC branch and has yet to respond to the Fulcrum’s specific questions on the branch.

However, as the university advocates for sustainable and environmentally conscious initiatives — such as aiming to be carbon-free by 2040 — partnering with RBC doesn’t exactly seem to line up with their green ambitions. 

According to a report ​​titled Banking on Climate Chaos 2021, which was published by a coalition of seven climate advocacy organizations, RBC lent $163 billion USD to the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2020.

In a CBC article from March, RBC reaffirmed its commitment to net zero emissions, including a promise of $500 billion in sustainable finance by 2025.

RBC has faced criticism for its investment in fossil fuel projects from activists and politicians around the country. 

On September 1st, Ottawa-Centre Green Party candidate Angela Keller-Herzog said in a press release that RBC is “Canada’s biggest fossil fuel investor” and subsequently closed her campaign’s account with the bank. 

In late August, the McGill Daily, the Montreal university’s student paper, covered a protest in which protesters gathered at Place Ville-Marie to “​​bring awareness to RBC’s substantial funding of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Mní Sóta Makoce, or what is currently Minnesota.”

In response, Summer said that the transition to net zero must be done in an inclusive manner that emcompasses all sectors and communities of society.

“We need to strive for competitiveness and sustainability while not leaving some segments of the economy in our communities behind or we won’t achieve the support we need to meet [these] goals,” said Summer in an interview.

Climate Justice Ottawa, an on-campus club dedicated to climate justice and environmental activism, said in a statement that of the five ‘big banks’ in the country, RBC is the greatest funder of fossil fuels. 

“The presence of RBC on our campus to me demonstrates how a university can be at once a place of great innovation while also an agent that reinforces the status quo,” said Mary Stuart, co-founder of the club, in an interview. 

“To me, it is completely contradictory for an institution committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2040 to have this relationship with one of Canada’s largest climate chaos funders.”

Stuart went on to say that while RBC’s presence may financially support the University’s endeavours due to lack of provincial funding, the move is counterintuitive to their divestment goals.

“I think given the state of the climate crisis [alongside] universities as these innovative institutions, it is important for [the university] to be taking some moral stances on issues. It is past the point of it being morally acceptable to be supporting banks [and] companies that are fueling the climate crisis.”

Students who are not actively involved in the divestment movement were also concerned with the university’s association with RBC. Erika, a first-year Master’s student at the U of O, whose identity is not being disclosed for fear of reprisal, spoke about how institutions like universities often say the right things but act in a way that isn’t representative of those words. 

“You see that everywhere around the world, [institutions] preach about being more green, but behind the scenes, it’s never that way. So is it surprising? No. Is it expected? Am I disappointed? No, because I kind of expected that this would happen.”

First-year student Ève Tremblay, when asked about the university’s association may have on the student’s ambitions.

“If the university wants to foster bright futures, I feel like maybe they should keep that in mind when they make those kinds of decisions,” she said.

The presence of the RBC branch on-campus not only misaligns with the university’s environmentally-conscious ambitions, but sets a dangerous precedent when it comes to the blatant erasure of student spaces and priorities. The 24/7 student lounge was one of only a handful of areas where students could study on campus day and night. 

“We used to have a spot where students could study late at night and dining hall employees could take their breaks, and now this space looks like it’s barely even going to be used,” Stuart continued. 

“You’re going to have one person from RBC there enticing a couple of students to talk with them for a few moments, but it’s definitely a loss of a study space [so] a company can advertise themselves.”

Summers says RBC has signed a multi-year lease agreement with the university, so for the next few years, the Jock-Turcot branch is there to stay and serve U of O students. But the commercialization of the campus remains present, yet discreet — and extends to campuses across the country. So when the administration strays from its goals, students must not be shy to boldly remind them, and to hold them accountable for their promises.

-With files from Charley Dutil