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Will there ever be a wake up call loud enough for institutional action? Photo: Bridget Coady/Fulcrum
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Hey, Mr. Frémont? Can we divest, please?

Last week, Canadian university students and climate activists scored a major victory when the University of Toronto announced that it would be divesting from fossil fuels. The divestment will begin immediately, with U of T stating its intentions to divest from its direct investments in fossil fuel companies over the next twelve months, and from indirect investments by 2030.

The announcement has the potential to set off something of a domino effect on campuses across the country, given the place of considerable prestige U of T occupies in the Canadian academic sphere. While it may be a flagship in this province, U of T is far from an outlier in this endeavour. 

In October, Dartmouth became the fifth American ivy league university to announce its divestment from fossil fuels, a string of commitments that set a global precedent for the world’s most prestigious universities. In Canada, the University of Victoria, the University of Guelph, as well as several other publicly funded post-secondary institutions have already begun divesting from fossil fuels. All of these institutions also committed to achieving net-zero emissions by various deadlines.

All this is important, because even as the precedents close in around the University of Ottawa, the administration continues to refuse any commitments to divestment. In May, campus environmental organization Climate Justice UO (CJCuO), published a letter on its Instagram from U of O president Jacques Frémont’s it received in response to their divestment campaign.

The letter is a lesson in avoiding the question. “After a methodical examination that included panel discussions on campus, commissioning experts’ reports and hearing from advocates, a holistic approach to reducing our impact on the environment well beyond fossil fuel divestment was recommended. This allows uOttawa to contribute to the collective effort in Canadian society to confront the threat posed by climate change and global warming,” wrote Frémont. 

The gist of that wordy but largely empty passage is that the U of O will not divest. 

There are so many bones I’d like to pick with these statements. The first, of course, is the simple question: why can your “holistic approach” that goes “well beyond” divestment not simply include divestment? Why are these things mutually exclusive? 

Frémont does not provide an answer to that question, beyond the haphazard excuse that in the event of divestment, “while the ownership would change, the issue would continue to exist.” The sentiment is “if it’s not me, it’s somebody else,” but what the statement fails to grasp is that students would much rather it be somebody else, somebody whose money does not come from our tuition dollars.

This illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the political side of this decision, which is to demonstrate an opposition to the fossil fuel industry as an institution, and therefore represent the voices of the students it serves, who are calling in increasing numbers for divestment

The second is Frémont’s reference to “the collective effort in Canadian society”. By the time the letter was written, several Canadian universities had already committed to divestment. Today, U of T, the country’s biggest university, is among them. It seems to me the collective effort in Canadian society is beginning to include a collective effort from Canadian universities, and it’s beginning to include divestment. 

Frémont listed a number of the U of O’s climate-centred initiatives at the end of his letter. He noted that the U of O was the first university in Canada and the second in the world to sign the Montreal Carbon Pledge, a 2014 United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (UN-PRI) pledge that committed signatory investors to a formal carbon footprint goal

Great. So we were, at one time, leaders. That was seven years ago, and we’ve blown it since then. How long are we as an institution going to fight the growing divestment movement? Nobody is asking the U of O to dismantle the fossil fuel industry, but we could at least stop giving them our money. 

If Frémont really wants the U of O to contribute to the collective effort to confront this threat, let’s hope U of T has given him the push to finally do so. Wasn’t it nice to be a leader? We might not be first, but we don’t have to be last. It’s too late for leadership, but it’s not too late for solidarity.