Canadian universities leave students in the dark about investments in the oil industry

Campaigns against the investments have arose, but have fallen in recent years


By Jennifer Wilson, Trevor Nault and Eleanor Clarke

Three years after the peak of fossil fuel divestment campaigns on B.C. campuses, students still have little idea how much their institutions invest in oil.

The international environmental network, launched their first fossil fuel divestment campaign in 2012, urging post-secondary administrations to pull out of their investments in fossil fuel companies. Less than a month later, over 100 individual, student led campaigns had spread across the United States. The movement quickly spread to Canada and the University of British Columbia was as the first to take up the cause in 2014.

Cameron Fenton, an organizer for, says post-secondary divestment gave the David of environmental activism considerable leverage against the fossil fuel industry Goliath.

“Up against governments and some of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations we were up against unfathomable odds. Divestment is changing that. Positioned as centres of social and technological innovation, what happens on campuses ripples across our society,” he said.

He added that campus divestment may not effectively impact the bottom line of the fossil fuel industry but that awareness can impact reputation something more valuable than money.

Money is still an essential element in the divestment debate however, and post-secondary endowment funds are big money.

In July, Canada’s Oil and Natural Gas Producers released a report arguing that their industry is key “for a prosperous British Columbia,” claiming global demand for oil will increase by 12 per cent by 2040.

On the other hand, pro-divestment reports argue that since oil prices have collapsed since 2014 and more organizations commit to divest from fossil fuels, divestment is a financially secure option.

A Langara Voice investigation shows that as of December 2016, long term investments at 27 of the 35 post-secondary institutions in B.C. totaled $3.7 billion. To put this in perspective, the federal and provincial governments provide about $3.3 billion in annual subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

The funds are supplied by donors, and are re-invested through third-party investment managers and mutual funds. Schools use the interest gained on these investments to fund operations and special projects.

At its peak, there were 9 active fossil fuel divestment campaigns at post-secondary schools in B.C. Despite the reputational impact of divestment campaigns, no universities in B.C. have committed to divestment.

Fast forward to campaigns in 2017

Of the nine university fossil fuel divestment campaigns in B.C., only 3 remain active. On a national level, Laval University in Quebec has committed to full divestment, but they remain the only post-secondary institution in Canada to do so. Most institutions in B.C. have made drawn out commitments of partial divestment while others have responded to student and faculty campaigns with a flat-out no.

The University of Victoria is currently one of the most active campaigns in B.C.  Natalia Karpovskaia has been active with UVic’s campaign since their Student Society’s referendum on fossil fuel divestment in 2015. She said their tactics have been a major factor in their longevity. “A lot of our tactics are focused on two things, one of which is gathering support but also the other is having conversations with UVic, or attempting to.” she said.

Similarly, Alice-Anne Simard, the student who led the ULaval Sans Fossiles campaign said  “it’s important not to villainize the school, but to emphasize the opportunity for leadership.”

Maintaining a respectful conversation, however, will only take a campaign so far according to Kapovskaia, who feels UVic is waiting for other institutions to take the first step in B.C.

The University has so far rejected divestment despite both student and faculty voting in favour of it.

Karpovskaia said that when their group met with the UVic Foundation, they agreed that divestment is the right thing to do both ethically and financially, however, “the reason they’re not divesting is because if they do, it’s too much of a political statement to make… It’s too controversial to make a decision that big, and universities tend to stay a-political on issues like this.”

Divestments at Langara College

Another major issue mentioned by activists is longevity.  Students are overworked, overburdened and often poor. When the core campaign groups graduate, so does the energy for the movement and therefore the pressure on administrations.

The challenges of political hesitancy, anxiety around investment income and student body transience are exacerbated at community colleges, said Jessie Smith, a Latin American studies instructor at Langara College.

She first raised the issue of divestment with her union in 2014.

“Student engagement of that nature is challenging here in terms of clubs and groups and that kind of thing. Once you get started, before you know it you’re off to study somewhere else.”

Small scale, sustainability initiatives are increasingly common on B.C. campuses. Langara College for example, has invested in sustainable architecture and waste reduction efforts on campus.

“We understand that the world’s resources are finite and need to be used conservatively and wisely. We know that our choices, both big and small, impact on our world and future generations,” the Langara website says.

While sustainable modelling, partnerships and programming are advocated on the site, sustainable investments are not mentioned.  The Langara College Foundation, however, invests with Genus Capital, whose homepage touts the financial security of fossil free investment.

The investment numbers remain unknown

Officials from UVic, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and Douglas College have confirmed to The Langara Voice that they have no specific exclusion policies in regards to fossil fuel investment, but also pointed to sustainability initiatives on their campuses and investors who promote sustainable investment policies.

It remains largely unclear how much of their multi-million-dollar endowment funds are invested in fossil fuel companies, particularly when endowment investments are handled by third-parties.

Divestment, it seems, has graduated. According to Hudema, while B.C. campuses see fewer divestment actions than in 2014, the divestment movement as a whole is alive and well. High-profile campaigns, like the one at UBC, have accepted less than full divestment as a step in the right direction, a sign that the objectives have changed and adapted as students move on from institutions or grow weary in the face of the vast entrenchment of the Canadian economy in resource extraction.

According to Simard, though, student campaigns in B.C. should continue to use the divestment victory at ULaval as leverage in their arguments, saying that while no B.C. school will be the first to completely divest, “they certainly wouldn’t want to be the last.”

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