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  • UVic takes big step towards fossil fuel divestment

    James Rowe

    But there’s still a UVic endowment fund of $440 million that is invested in fossil fuels.

    James Rowe, Jeff Corntassel and Emily Lowan


    IN A BREAKTHROUGH for the fossil fuel divestment movement, the University of Victoria announced this week that it planned to fully divest one of its two primary investment funds—a $256 million working capital fund managed by its board of governors—from fossil fuels.

    With this decision, the University of Victoria joins other Canadian universities that have divested for a mixture of financial, moral, and reputational reasons, namely, Guelph, Concordia, Lakehead, the University of British Columbia, and Université du Québec a Montréal. It also joins over 1,300 organizations, worth a collective $14.5 trillion, that have pulled their funds from fossil fuel companies. In 2020, fossil fuel companies became the worst-performing sector on the stock market for the second year in a row.

    Divestment is now a sound financial decision. But for members of the divestment movement, it’s not just about saving money. When reputable organizations pull their investments in fossil fuels, they help marginalize oil, gas, and coal companies. They make it harder for these companies to wield their political power to delay action on climate change.

    Research by the Corporate Mapping Project shows that fossil fuel companies are Canada’s biggest lobbyists. Between 2011 and 2018, the industry averaged six visits with the Canadian government per day for a total of over 11,000 visits. Their aim: to promote continued reliance on fossil fuels and obstruct the transition to renewable energy sources. They encouraged Trudeau’s Liberals, for example, to actively promote the Keystone XL pipeline with the Trump administration.

    As members of the divestment movement, our goal is to deflate the social and political licence of fossil fuel companies. Once they’re marginalized, policy makers will be able to take action on climate change with less fear of losing or alienating voters.

    In the United States, the Biden administration is now operating with relative autonomy from the powerful oil and gas lobby. In addition to a raft of climate-related executive orders,  his administration has put a stop to the Keystone XL pipeline and has started to cancel subsidies for fossil fuel companies. As Biden said at a recent press briefing: “Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to Big Oil.”

    As CNBC stock analyst Jim Cramer recently noted, divestment campaigns have helped turn fossil fuels into the new tobacco, making it easier for politicians to challenge powerful companies. Biden’s stance will create more room for Trudeau to pursue a more ambitious climate policy, if he is willing. 

    The University of Victoria has finally chosen to align its investments with its commitments to sustainability and reconciliation. This change, eight years in the making, stems from the efforts of a new president and because of sustained campaigning by students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Last year, when Indigenous students were rallying supporters on the front steps of the BC Legislature in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders, the university’s capital fund was invested in TC Energy, the company pursuing the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in Wet’suwet’en Territory. (TC Energy is also pursuing the Keystone XL pipeline.) By choosing divestment, UVic’s actions are beginning to match its values. This year, the university is working to roll out a more robust climate and sustainability action plan on campus and in local communities.

    These are breakthroughs, but the university still has a way to go. We hope that this new willingness to divest will also be applied to the university’s other investment fund, a $440-million endowment governed by a separate board. But there are no student or faculty representatives on it, and the board is populated by individuals with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

    For example, the chair of the endowment board, Mary Garden, is also a director for Horizon North Logistics, which builds modular camps for oil and gas production. These camps, often referred to as “man camps,” have been implicated in gendered colonial violence and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Horizon North built the camps for Coastal GasLink on sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory, where in February, the RCMP conducted a militarized five-day siege that sparked solidarity actions across the country.

    Likewise, Horizon North Logistics also built the camps at the Kearl Lake oilsands facility in northern Alberta that has been linked to a large COVID-19 outbreak. Because the Alberta government has not restricted fly-in fly-out workers, the outbreak has already been linked to the deaths of two Dene elders in Saskatchewan, along with cases in BC, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. 

    Garden’s position as chair of the endowment board is a potential obstruction to divestment at UVic, since she represents a company with profits tied to the fossil fuel industry. 

    The connections do not end there. Also on the endowment board (which includes eight members from outside UVic) sits Lisa Dempsey, who is a VP and investment counsellor for RBC, and Doug Stadelman, who until 2018 was an RBC VP for Canadian equities. RBC is the world’s second-largest investor in Canada’s fossil fuel sector according to research by the Corporate Mapping Project.

    The University of Victoria deserves applause for divesting its working capital fund of fossil fuels. But if the university is truly serious about sustainability and reconciliation, it must also divest its endowment fund as the next step toward meaningful change.

    James Rowe is an associate professor of environmental studies; Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee Nation) is an associate professor of Indigenous studies; and Emily Lowan is director of campaigns and community relations for the University of Victoria Students’ Society. A shorter version of this commentary was published on February 8 in the National Observer.

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