A Conversation about the Canadian University Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement


The iteration of the fossil fuel divestment movement discussed in this piece started about 5 years ago in the United States. Campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns aim to make universities cease investing in the world’s biggest oil, gas, and coal companies. Institutions such as foundations, faith, cultural, and health organizations, and pension funds have taken up the work that started on university campuses. Today, over 700 institutions worldwide have divested over $5 trillion, including over 100 colleges and universities. 

In Canada, there have been over thirty active campus divestment campaigns, which have mobilized thousands of students on campuses from the University of Victoria on the West Coast to Memorial University in Newfoundland. It was only very recently, though, that Université Laval became the first Canadian university to commit to full divestment. 

Key to the divestment theory of change is the idea of eroding pillars of support for the fossil fuel industry until it collapses. By challenging social acceptance of and practical investments in the fossil fuel industry by formal institutions, we are wearing away at support for the fossil fuel industry as a whole. 

Divestment is a movement concerned with the intersectionality of climate change and has become an outlet for the authors of this piece and thousands of other young people to reclaim power and effect change on campus with the ultimate goal of influencing Canadian politics beyond our campuses.

The only time divestment campaigners Laura Cutmore (Divest Dal), Tina Oh (Divest Mount Allison), Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie (Divest UWinnipeg) and Katie Perfitt (350.org, Divest Dal alum) have all met in person was at Climate 101, a youth-led mass act of civil disobedience on Parliament Hill against the Kinder Morgan pipeline. They reconvened online to create this conversation, bringing their own diverse personal experiences with campus divestment organizing across Turtle Island, to discuss the importance and power of the movement.

Laura Cutmore: How did you all get involved in divestment organizing? What was it about divestment, or your particular campaign, that made you want to be a part of this movement?

Katie Perfitt: I remember having a conversation about climate change with a friend on the bus, and she broke down into tears. She said she’d always wanted to have kids, but how could she, with the future so uncertain?

Just before that conversation, I returned to Halifax from Ottawa, where I had attended Powershift 2012, a national youth gathering focused on climate, environmental, and social justice. It was a natural step when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to get involved with the campus divestment campaign. I haven’t really stopped organizing since.

Our generation is burdened with climate change like no other generation before us. I’d always felt frustrated and scared by that realization. But the more I learned about the roots of climate change, the more I started to feel angry: angry for women, Indigenous peoples, and racialized people who disproportionately shoulder the impacts of the climate crisis. I felt angry because I finally understood who was really responsible: massive fossil fuel companies.

Laura Cutmore: For me, the emotion that brought me in—although it initially kept me away—was fear. I’ve been concerned about climate change since I was young, but it took me a long time to get involved in the climate movement because I was too afraid.

I was terrified because what I was learning about climate change made it seem like there was no hope; that the world was as good as dead already, and nothing I could do could possibly have any effect. Mainstream environmentalism did nothing to allay these fears either: even with my limited knowledge of the issues, recycling and changing light bulbs didn’t seem like an appropriate scale of action to address this crisis. I was also terrified of activism because I’m shy and unsure of myself and my abilities. But this disconnection from others working on climate issues only increased my feelings of helplessness.

Getting involved with Divest Dal introduced me to incredible people who believed in me, and gave me an outlet for my fear in meaningful organizing work. The work I’m doing now, although it will not put a stop to climate change, is making a real effort to lessen harm and suffering; at the very least, it feels like going down fighting. Climate change is still terrifying because so much is at stake and it often does feel desperate, but the fear and grief are more manageable now that I have a support network to help me cope without minimizing my feelings.

Divest Dal students standing as silenced witnesses at a recent Board of Governors’ meeting as the Board voted to raise tuition and continued to ignore the issue of divestment. Photo credit: Paul Robinson

Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie: I’ve cared for the environment since I was a young child living in Sagkeeng First Nation, in Treaty 1 territory. My father taught my three older brothers and me how to hunt, trap, fish, and farm, which gave me a great understanding from an early age of how the environment and the animals give us life. However, I remember my father and other relatives talking about the difficulties brought about by increased development in the area, which impacted their ability to practice their treaty rights to hunt and fish for subsistence living.

Attending university, I began to understand the colonial power dynamics at work between Indigenous peoples, the economy, and the environment. I learned how companies and governments continuously infringe upon treaty rights by using deeply inadequate environmental assessment processes to “consult” with First Nations. First Nations, determined to have their rights respected, have at times resorted to litigation reaching the Supreme Court. For example, the Northern Gateway Pipeline was defeated through a litigation process because First Nations were not properly consulted.

I became involved in the divestment movement when I was in my third year of Indigenous Studies. My good friend Kevin Settee, University of Winnipeg Students’ Association Vice President Executive, was involved in the campaign, organizing divestment rallies and lobbying the administration to fully divest from fossil fuels. I was already passionate about environmental justice, particularly around resource development within Indigenous communities, and felt that I could contribute to the campaign in a meaningful way within student politics. I spoke mainly about what I was learning about Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, their rights nationally and internationally, and how Indigenous resistance is about survival, reclaiming culture, and spiritual relation to the land.

I’ve participated in numerous discussions about divestment on the University of Winnipeg campus, as well as in climate justice work with the Climate 101 protest on Parliament Hill against Kinder Morgan; I also went to Standing Rock twice to fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco to pressure the Canadian government to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and reject pipeline projects. I used many of my experiences advocating for climate justice to highlight the importance of divestment from fossil fuels, echoing the words of Indigenous peoples who are directly affected by the fossil fuel industry through extraction, processing and transportation.

Tina Oh: I’m from Treaty 6 territory (Edmonton, Alberta) and I grew up with some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies in my backyard. Alberta depends on the fossil fuel industry: so do our neighbourhoods, and my own family. But when my father lost his job in the early stages of the 2008 recession, it proved really difficult for him, as an immigrant whose first language isn’t English, to find work. He ended up driving massive transport trucks up in Fort McMurray on and off for about three years, due to instability and lack of unionization in the fossil fuel industry.

While that was over half a decade ago, we are seeing a mirror of what happened in 2009 happening again. I was just starting university (on the other side of the country) when gas prices hit their low at $16 per barrel. It took a while for the knowledge to sink in, but the days of well-paying reliable oil and gas jobs in Alberta are over. We need to reckon with that. The fossil fuel industry is unstable and it always has been for workers. The fossil fuel industry is damaging frontline communities, polluting our waters, and destroying the environment. There has always been a human cost associated with resource extraction in Canada.

When I started to realize the injustices the fossil fuel industry willfully commits against the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities, I got involved. I started organizing at DivestMTA through my involvement with the students’ movement—both are part of the same fight. I was an executive with the Mount Allison Students’ Union when we organized a protest against tuition increases to illuminate the corporatization and growingly inaccessible nature of for-profit universities.

Divest MTA die-in

Universities are businesses, and are becoming less and less accountable to students, faculty, and staff. University corporatization is why they refuse to divest, even though fossil fuel investments are financially risky. It’s why they talk so much about Indigenization and decolonization on campuses yet do nothing about it. It’s why university administrators’ salaries continue to rise, while tenured positions for professors decline.

There is something deeply troubling at work when universities willfully ignore their complicity in environmental violence by continuing to invest in an industry that destroys the climate and young people’s opportunities to live in a habitable world.

KP: And that is exactly the point of divestment, to challenge this industry—the real culprits of the climate crisis—on campuses, in cities, at places of worship, and elsewhere. Divestment demands that institutions pick a side: people or the fossil fuel industry.

The logic of divestment is simple: if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. Divestment isn’t about bankrupting the fossil fuel industry. It’s about bankrupting the social license of the fossil fuel industry. We want to do that because they have enough carbon underground to torch the climate, and the business plan of the fossil fuel industry is to do just that.

SPL: The fossil fuel industry is declining, yet the federal government still subsidizes it by 3.3 billion dollars annually. The ultimate goal of the divestment movement is to have our government fully divest from fossil fuels and meaningfully invest in a renewable energy sector: one that is sustainable towards the environment, and respects Indigenous peoples’ right to refuse resource extraction, processing, and transportation with the implementation of UNDRIP.

KP: Totally. That’s the endgame here. We want to challenge the social license of the fossil fuel industry, in order to loosen the grip they have in our society and on our politics. To get there, our job is to build capacity and to grow and strengthen the youth climate justice movement, because it’s our futures at stake.

And it’s working. We could never have imagined five years ago that the CEO of Shell would publicly state that the public’s confidence in the fossil fuel industry is waning, but he did. That’s because of the power we’ve built.

Morning of day 3 of the #OccupyMTA campout after students slept in freezing temperatures on the Mount Allison campus quad. Photo credit: Sally Faulkner

LC: That’s an important piece to mention, because a lot of the change we’ve caused is about reclaiming power. Understanding that justice has never been won by asking nicely means teaching students and young people to put our faith in our own power. It also means respecting the immense power of Indigenous peoples fighting on the front lines, and of women and racialized people, who have always led social justice movements.

TO: Exactly. This is a justice movement that not only centres the voices of marginalized peoples, but understands that larger socio-political structural change must occur.

As a woman of colour, climate justice work is not optional to me. It is necessary to recognize, in doing environmental work, the disproportionate effects of climate change on the most vulnerable. To understand climate change, we have to understand environmental racism. And to understand environmental racism, we have to understand racial justice.

My grandfather is a rice farmer in South Korea whose harvests deplete every year due to sudden floods and frequent droughts from climate change—so I often do this work thinking of him and the farmers who feed us around the world. And I also I do this work thinking of the racialized bodies that will continue to be affected most by water insecurity, food insecurity, and flooding coastlines.

It is my responsibility to utilize my privilege and stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. I offer my body in solidarity to those who are organizing a safe and fiercely compassionate movement. Divestment challenges environmental injustice at the intersections of gender, race, and class.

The logic of divestment is simple: if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. Divestment isn’t about bankrupting the fossil fuel industry. It’s about bankrupting the social license of the fossil fuel industry.

LC: Agreed. For me, organizing for climate justice has really deepened the intersectionality of my feminism. Climate change is a gendered issue, and if we’re to really tackle the climate crisis, we need to address issues that affect all women and non-binary people.

On a personal level, being involved in Divest has been helping me learn how to be direct and forceful without relinquishing my tenderness and compassion. I’ve also been learning how to reclaim and hold space—and to know when to cede it to others. While members of Divest Dal were occupying our Member of Parliament Andy Fillmore’s office in protest of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, he told me I was being unreasonable and aggressive by demanding a safe and livable future. It’s never easy to deal with being gaslighted by older men, but, learning from other women and femmes involved in Divest, I’ve been getting better at standing my ground in situations like that. At the same time, I’ve also been learning to how be a better ally; to take direction from Indigenous folks and racialized people so that I can fight alongside them against climate injustice and environmental racism without taking space from them.

SPL: As an Indigenous student attending University of Winnipeg, I have to compromise my relationship with the environment in order to get a post-secondary education. My education is tied to the environmental destruction that disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities caused by fossil fuel companies and supported by my university’s investment portfolio.

The fossil fuel industry unilaterally impacts all aspects of Indigenous life, including being an Indigenous student with friends who are directly impacted in Fort McMurray, Loubicon Cree Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, White Earth Ojibwe Tribe, and more under the Treaty Alliance against Tar Sands Expansion. My way of taking control is working to sever the relationship universities have with the fossil fuel industry, an industry that benefits from the destruction of the earth. A university that claims to be a sustainable leader that respects Indigenization has no business dealing with these industries.

KP: That’s definitely something the divestment movement understands, and this refusal to shy away from the truth is something I’ve always appreciated about divestment. I remember sitting in one of my first divestment meetings and feeling this huge sense of relief, and I think that’s because I’d finally found an organizing space that really gets at the heart of the climate issue.

For a long time, the options available to students for taking action on climate and the environment on campus were about personal consumption. Initiatives focusing on waste, energy efficiency, plastics, etc., are all important, but they don’t allow people to actually challenge power.

What do you all think? Do you think the success of divestment campaigns is their ability to challenge unjust power structures?

SPL: I do; that’s been an important part of Divest UWinnipeg’s work and something we’ve been successful at doing. The University of Winnipeg considers itself to be a sustainability leader with its infrastructure and at the forefront of Indigenization with the Indigenous Course Requirement. Divest UWinnipeg showcases the hypocrisy of the University of Winnipeg Administration and the UWinnipeg Foundation Board as they are in fact contributing to human-caused climate change and the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry on Indigenous communities.

We’ve highlighted the financial benefits of divesting; we’ve addressed the hypocrisy of their greenwashing; we’ve challenged the university on the issues of corporate redwashing Indigenous peoples; and we’ve reminded the university of its role and responsibility of addressing climate change and protecting the environment in order to reconcile with Indigenous peoples.

A banner drop at the University of Winnipeg’s fall convocation, while the UWinnipeg president was giving closing remarks. Photo Credit: Mitchell van Ineveld

TO: The actual success of divesting from fossil fuels is such a minor component of the divestment movement at large. We’re not only questioning the social license of fossil fuel industries, but also challenging the status quo of the growing neoliberal agendas inside post-secondary education systems.

LC: I think people are under the impression that because we’ve been campaigning for so long and haven’t achieved a full win yet, this means we’ve lost. But many movements don’t see the fruit of their labour. Sometimes it takes years—or lifetimes—for the seeds we’ve planted to grow.

While Dalhousie University hasn’t divested yet, our campaign has brought more transparency to the administrative decision-making process, created a university-wide conversation about climate justice, and brought huge numbers of students into the climate movement.

KP: I totally agree. But while divestment is becoming mainstream elsewhere, it has been much harder to get Canadian universities on board with divestment. And it’s definitely not for lack of trying.

Why do you think Canadian universities have been so resistant to this change?

SPL: That’s definitely the question we’re all grappling with, because at this point, there is no good reason not to divest. All the excuses that we’ve been given from the university show that their relationship to donors matter more than relationships they have with the broader community and their students, and that they’re afraid of the financial implications of divestment short-term despite the financial risks of remaining invested long-term. This is simply financial withdrawal from a toxic and abusive investment portfolio.

Sooner or latter, universities will be forced to divest from fossil fuels. The longer they wait, the more they will have suffered financially and harmed crucial relationships with their students and many Indigenous communities.

In the States, many wins have come after multi-day escalated actions; we haven’t seen this sort of nation-wide action from Canadian campaigns yet. I think we need to ask ourselves if we’re really willing to do what it takes, on all fronts, using all types of strategies and tactics, in order to defeat the fossil fuel industry.

This kind of all-out action would entail applying a vast amount of political pressure internally within high-level board meetings, making the financial, economic, environmental, political, and social arguments very clear and persuasive. If the administration wants to play hardball, we’ll need to be continuously escalating in our actions and continuing to build the movement within the student body, faculty members, alumni, and the broader community. We need to send a strong signal to our universities that the people will never give up the fight against fossil fuels, and if they don’t want their reputation tarnished, they better get out of the way and join our movement sooner than later.

KP: And even if we are able to do all that, I also think we need to consider if the divestment movement has had an off-campus political impact. Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that to get the kind of change we need—to ensure a transition off of fossil fuels—we have to make a political impact. We’re in a no-compromise political moment right now with Trump in power in the United States and the far-right on the rise here in Canada, too. And we’re at the breaking point for meeting climate targets: we now have years, not decades, left to take real action before it’s too late.

TO: Definitely. It’s great that Trudeau’s government championed the 1.5 degree target at COP21, but it is meaningless when the government approves three major fossil fuel infrastructure projects (Kinder Morgan, Pacific NorthWest-LNG, and Enbridge’s Line 3) a month after the House of Commons ratified the Paris Agreement.

It’s also important that we question and hold Trudeau’s “sunny ways” approach to governance accountable. In the election, Trudeau repeatedly denounced Harper’s climate target of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Yet, it was announced at COP21 that Trudeau’s government would, in fact, keep the same target set by the Conservatives. The hypocrisy of boasting “climate leadership” on the world stage, at a very media-centred COP, while promoting mediocre climate goals should not go unnoticed. Let’s also not forget that Trudeau has repeatedly said he would fully implement UNDRIP.

Almost 30 Divest Dal members received permanent tattoos in the lobby of Dal’s administrative building and dozens of divestment supporters received solidarity sharpie tattoos. These “Birthmark” tattoos are the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the year the student was born. Everyone who got a tattoo was born after the world surpassed the upper safe limit of 350ppm.

LC: Absolutely. What we need right now is leaders who will take courageous action to stand up to big oil and stand up for Indigenous rights. By approving these fossil fuel infrastructure projects, our governments have shown again and again that they are not these leaders.

And when our universities finally do divest, it will be because of the young people who worked tirelessly, speaking truth to power and taking bold action to demand leadership from our administrations.

How are you all feeling, moving forward? Do you feel your campaign is ready to step up and do what’s necessary to win? Are you feeling hopeful about the possibility of your university divesting in the near future?

TO: I am excited to continue witnessing the divestment movement challenge academia’s ivory tower. The fossil fuel divestment movement is composed of organizers who are mobilized by lived experiences and not by textbook environmentalism. We are not here to play administrators’ games, or ask kindly. We are mobilizing to demand a just, clean transition off dirty oil, starting with the very institutions that should be empowering us. I think the compassion we have for this issue will enable us to do what it takes to win, and it makes me hopeful.

SPL: For the past four years, campus administrators have been using the excuse that university divestment hadn’t been done before in Canada, but they can’t hide behind that excuse anymore. I’m hoping Université Laval’s commitment to divest will open the floodgates for more divestment wins.

I’ll be excited when my university commits to full fossil fuel divestment. I’d be even more excited if they could divest within the time that I’m still here. Overall, I look forward to universities taking a firm stance against the fossil fuel industry and siding with students and Indigenous communities in making investment decisions that will positively impact our futures. I’m looking forward to seeing what actions our campaigns will take this fall and I can’t wait to see what we’ll all do next, once our universities have (finally) divested. It can’t not happen at this point, so it’s only a matter of time, for better or for worse.

LC: The possibility of winning definitely makes me excited, but, to be honest, what really gives me hope is this movement. I’ve stopped thinking about organizing as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. In our campaigns, in our events and actions, and in the relationships we form while doing our organizing work, we’re already creating the world we dream of when we say “a better world is possible.”