Over 100 University of Guelph students led a solidarity process with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’an territory on Wednesday on campus, and then they went inside to push the administration to divest the university from fossil fuels. Although the U of G Board of Governors voted down such a motion last year, Vice-President of Finance Don O’Leary promised the protestors that he would bring it up again.
After a gathering in Branion Plaza, which is outside the north entrance of the University Centre, the student protestors moved into the UC Courtyard where a job fair was taking place. Among the employers with tables at the fair was the RCMP, the Guelph Police Service, and the Canadian Armed Forces, who the protest organizers singled out as purveyors of colonial violence. They made it clear that they considered the presence of these groups unwelcome on campus.
“The RCMP, Guelph Police, and Armed Forces are all complicit in different levels of colonial violence, oppression, and imperialism in the state of Canada and beyond. Their compliance in these systems remain unacceptable, and will not be supported by students,” said a letter handed out by the Central Student Association that was also read aloud in the UC Courtyard.
“Today, we the students stand up, and fight back. We claim the University Centre as a student space, and demand the RCMP and their whole row of gun slingers stand back from Wet’suwet’en and leave the University of Guelph effective immediately,” it added.
After occupying the courtyard, the protest moved up to the fourth floor of the UC where they occupied the offices of the university administration for an hour. Confronting O’Leary, protestors demanded that the University of Guelph divest the millions of dollars it has invested in fossil fuel, and fossil fuel-related businesses.
According to reporting by The Ontarion, special constables with the University of Guelph’s campus police were on the scene, but did not act to remove the students.
Instead, protestors were able to confront O’Leary who said that his hands were tied on divesting, but eventually O’Leary announced that we would back a new motion to divest saying, “I’m making a recommendation to the Board of Finances that the university fully divest from fossil fuels.”
After the protest broke up, O’Leary told The Ontarion that he’s shifted in his appraisal of the issue since the Board of Governors’ divestment vote last January “I’ve changed over the years for sure … I will make the recommendation to the board … to fully divest from the endowment,” he said.
This is a different stand for O’Leary who was much more pragmatic about the university’s investing after last year’s divestment vote.
“There are bigger polluters from a carbon footprint perspective than oil companies right now, and those would be some of the ones we start looking at right off the bat before some of the oil companies,” O’Leary said to the media last January. “Even the companies themselves are making changes. From a financial perspective, they see the changes coming in the world, and we all know in Canada right now that we can’t even bring our oil to market.”
After years of engagement, an Ad-Hoc Committee of the Board of Governors proposed five recommendations including the establishment of a baseline carbon footprint and ESG (environment, social and governance) score, to develop 10-year goals with a reporting process, and to “lead in advancing change in the university sector.”
Many U of G students, including the advocacy group Fossil Free Guelph, were pushing for the university to completely divest the $32 million portion of its endowment that’s invested in fossil fuel companies like Exxon-Mobil and Suncor.
At the Board of Governors meeting, the plan from the Ad-Hoc Committee was adapted despite the very vocal protests of students at the meeting.
“It’s inevitable that companies we will be looking at their investments through a carbon reduction lense,” said O’Leary after the vote. “The students are right, we’re not fooling ourselves here, this is all going to happen. It’s just not a knee-jerk, cut our losses move out of the $32 million we have in oil and gas.”
It’s worth noting that O’Leary is retiring from his position this coming August, so it may be questionable how much influence he might have on future Board decisions.
The next Board of Governors meeting at the University of Guelph is on April 22.
Photo Courtesy of Fossil Free Guelph