Advocating for fossil fuel divestment at University of Winnipeg

UWSA, CFS-Manitoba endorse oil company divestment campaigns, target Energy East Pipeline

Graphic by Caroline Norman

In coordination with campus student groups, the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) is launching a fossil fuel divestment campaign on their campus to encourage the University of Winnipeg to discontinue the practice of investing in fossil fuel companies.

The launch week, which begun on Monday, includes activities such as a petition drive, panel discussion, and film screenings to raise awareness surrounding climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. The objective is to engage as many campus stakeholders as possible, including the University of Winnipeg Foundation, the Board of Regents, faculty, and the administration.

Manitoba students have been preparing for a fossil fuel divestment campaign targeting TransCanada due to the proposed Energy East pipeline, which is slated to transport oil sands bitumen from Alberta to refineries on Canada’s east coast, according to a press release by the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba.

The current UWSA campaign emerged when the national office of the Canadian Federation of Students passed a unanimous resolution to endorse a national campaign for fossil fuel divestment at their general meeting in the spring of 2014. Delegates representing the UWSA at that meeting then brought the resolution to their Board of Directors. Shortly after the CFS resolution, the UWSA board passed a motion to endorse the campaign.

In discussing their current initiative, UWSA vice-president advocate Peyton Veitch said that there is significant need for oil sands divestment given the current economic and environmental climate in Canada.

“There’s a level of urgency to this cause that’s really worth highlighting,” Veitch said.

“We have to be really clear in saying that fossil fuel companies and their business practices, if left to their own devices, will push the planet to the point of runaway climate change.”

Veitch cited at least one example where pressure from the community led to divestment from an oil company at the U of W.

In 2013, when scrutiny was put on the university’s campus Eco-Kids program, a summer science program for inner city youth funded by the oil company Enbridge, the university cancelled the initiative due to community pressure. The program, re-titled Science-Kids on Campus, is now funded by the government of Manitoba and a range of community groups.

What divestment seeks to attain, however, is a full break from any relationship, financial or otherwise, between universities and oil companies like Enbridge or TransCanada.

The University of Winnipeg Foundation, a charitable public foundation that engages in fundraising and asset management for the U of W, does not make the specifics of their investments public. This makes it difficult to determine which fossil fuel companies are in their investment portfolio and how they affect the value of the endowment fund that is used to support scholarships, academic programs, and infrastructure, Veitch said.

“I think we have to assume that there will be some initial cost, but one of the things that we’re very cognizant of, is not only saying that investing in fossil companies is wrong, but also providing alternatives for the foundation,” said Veitch, noting that advocating for greater transparency on the part of the foundation is connected to the campaign.

Jeremy Read, executive officer and advisor to the president at the U of W, confirmed to the Manitoban that six per cent of the U of W’s endowment fund is invested in petroleum and associated industries such as plastic and asphalt. When asked about the administration’s stance on divestment, Read said that divestment would need to fit into a larger framework of long-term goals and strategies for sustainability.

“The reality is, our economy as a whole is petroleum- and gas-dependent, and if the long-term goal is reduction of fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions in terms of impact on climate change, then I think as an institution we want to make sure we’re at the table with the people we need to have those conversations with,” Read said.

Al Turnbull, president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, told the Manitoban that the student union does not have an official stance on fossil fuel divestment as of yet.

“Moving forward we need to consider a time without fossil fuel investments and fossil fuel dependency. On behalf of myself, I think universities should be cognizant that they are places of higher learning and progressive thinking, and they need to consider all the options. Fossil fuel divestment—and conversely, clean energy investment—is something we need to be cognizant of,” Turnbull said.

National, global divestment
Over the past 50 years, divestment has been used as a tactic to facilitate social change on university campuses.

The most widely known movement took place in the 1970s and ’80s when student activists demanded that schools divest from companies doing business with South Africa to protest the country’s apartheid system.

Those efforts, combined with widespread social and global state pressure, aided in isolating the South African economy, which facilitated the eventual collapse of the apartheid system. Divestment campaigns have been implemented on a wider scale and realized by federal legislation since the 1980s. Since then, sweatshop labour, use of landmines, and tobacco companies have all been targets of divestment.

In early December, Concordia University became the first Canadian post-secondary institution to begin divesting from fossil fuel companies, with a commitment to withdraw $5 million worth of holdings and dedicate it to “social and ethical investing.”

Dalhousie University’s Board of Governors recently voted against divestment, but agreed to consider environmental, social, and governance factors in their practice, and to incorporate the UN Principles for Responsible Investments. Dalhousie has also committed to publishing annual reports on investments.

The University of Manitoba has not announced any plans for oil divestment, but their current Strategic Plan states: “The university will need to continue its efforts to promote institutional sustainability and to pursue the principles of environmental, social, and economic sustainability defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development as meeting ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’”

The UWSA campaign is linked to Fossil Free Canada, a “national campus-based fossil fuel divestment movement,” which acts as a platform to connect nearly 30 student divestment groups across Canada.