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The U of O is the eleventh university to pledge to divest from fossil fuels. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum
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Students have been advocating on U of O to divest from fossil fuels since the early 2010s

On Tuesday afternoon, the University of Ottawa announced that it will divest from all its direct holdings in the fossil fuel industry by the 2023-24 academic year. Divestment will be extended to include all indirect holdings by 2030.

“We owe it to future generations to do everything we can today to mitigate the effects of climate change while we can still have an impact,” said U of O president Jacques Frémont in a press release.

“This decision goes hand in hand with our overall commitments to reducing our carbon footprint on campus. I thank the many students who advocated for the important steps we are taking. It is a great example of effective leadership on their part.”

With the announcement, the U of O joins ten other Canadian universities that have made a commitment to divest from fossil fuels. Other post-secondary institutions that have pledged to divest include the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, the University of Guelph and Laval University.

A win for student advocacy 

The University of Ottawa Students’ Union​​ (UOSU) applauded the University’s decision to divest from fossil fuels in a press release. The Union also took the opportunity to highlight the advocacy efforts of Climate Justice uOttawa, the Sustainability Centre, and past student governments.

“Climate change is a very real and pressing issue — the issue of our generation,” said Armaan Singh, the Union’s advocacy commissioner. “This announcement is a clear example that shows that bold and aggressive student advocacy and pressure works.”

The Union now calls on the University’s administration to be more transparent when it comes to its investment of students’ tuition fees and disclose all its holdings. The UOSU pointed out that there are many other potential ethical conflicts — for example, corporate positions on abortion rights — that students should be aware of. They insist that divestment from fossil fuel companies should not be the end of student demand for transparency.

“Students deserve to know where their tuition money is going,” said Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s president. “We are pleased that after years of campaigning, uOttawa has listened to students, turned away from the planet-ruining fossil fuel industry, and taken this important step towards a greener and more ethical university.” 

A long time coming

Students at the University of Ottawa have been putting pressure on the University to divest from fossil fuels since at least 2014. In October of that year, a group called Fossil Free uOttawa launched an online petition calling on the University to respond to the seriousness of climate change by immediately freezing any new investment in fossil fuels.

“While our university’s divestment alone may not cause significant damage to these companies financially, the declaration that ‘we will not be a part of this’ will send a strong symbolic message,” said Megan Bowers, a third-year political science student and one of the now-defunct group’s organizers, to the Fulcrum at the time.

The University answered those calls by promising students to develop a responsible investment policy.

Then in January 2016, the University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors formally rejected divestment. Instead, it committed to shifting the University’s investments towards new clean renewable energy technologies.

In 2019, undergraduate students voted on a motion to have the brand new UOSU lobby the University for an update on its divestment efforts. In an open letter in October 2021, the Union reported that it continued raising the issue with the administration but that “no firm commitments” had been made.

Divestment advocacy resurged with a new vigour following increased commercialization of campus. In particular, the opening of an RBC branch on campus angered many student activists as the bank is a leading investor in fossil fuels.