This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2018

Students vs. Big Oil

Canadian universities are investing in oil giants, and students are putting up a fight. Inside the battle for divestment on campuses across the country

Madi Haslam@madihaslam


Indigenous students lead an opening ceremony and land acknowledgement during the three-day camp-out at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University. Photo by Lauren Latour.

On a February morning in 2017, Tina Oh and more than 50 students are waiting impatiently in Mawita’mkw, a small gathering space for Indigenous students and community members at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Anxious chatter fills the room until suddenly, it’s silent. “It’s time,” Oh tells them, and the students, dressed entirely in black, follow her lead and file into the halls. As they make their way through the building, the group begins singing quietly to calm their nerves. “People going to rise like the water, going to calm this crisis down,” they chant. Their voices grow louder and more confident, echoing as they march through the doors to Tweedie Hall in the student centre. Within seconds of arriving in the room, they collapse suddenly on the hardwood floors.

Suit-clad policy makers stand in surprise, moving to the sides of the space, and watching on with with crossed arms as the students lay limp for nearly an hour. The group is staging a “die-in”—a protest representing the lives endangered by the devastating effects of climate change and the fossil fuel industry. The group has interrupted a board meeting with a set of demands: They call on the administration to cut Mount Allison’s financial ties with the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies within the next five years; they urge them to establish a sustainable and transparent investment policy.

After some muttering among board members, it becomes clear they will be agreeing to no such thing. Holding hands and chanting, the students stand their ground. They are not leaving the building until their demands are met. “We are demonstrating today against the inaction and the violent silence that this board has demonstrated to us,” Oh says. “Understood,” chair Ron W. Outerbridge tells her, and the board members shuffle out of the room, trying not to step on the bodies in their way.

“Being an advocate for climate justice has always been mandatory for me, especially as a woman of colour,” says Oh, a philosophy, political science, and economics student who was born in South Korea and grew up in Edmonton. Most of Oh’s relatives still live in South Korea, where many rely on agricultural work for their livelihood. In recent years, floods, typhoons, and droughts caused by climate change have had a severe impact on the country. That damage is echoed in the devastation caused by recent climate disasters around the world—hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, wildfires across North America, earthquakes in Mexico, and monsoon rains across South Asia.

The divestment campaign at Mount Allison, Divest MTA, began in 2013. It is one of more than 30 active divestment campaigns on campuses across Canada. The groups are calling on their schools to remove investments from the fossil fuels industry and buy into students’ futures by directing new funds in sustainable industries. As campaigns gain momentum, organizers are turning to public, often radical actions to spread their message and sway administrative bodies.


Students at Mount Allison participate in a die-in to protest divestment on campus. Photo by Lauren Latour.

On campuses from coast to coast to coast, divestment organizers are behind one of the most ambitious efforts to fight climate change in Canada. Universities hold a unique position as leaders in thought. Subsequently, organizers believe institutions’ commitment to divestment will tarnish the fossil fuel industry’s reputation in the public consciousness, rendering the industry untouchable.

The divestment movement speaks to a growing understanding that individual commitments to environmentalism no longer suffice in the efforts to tackle climate change. Organizers also know they cannot rely on performative promises of sustainability from governments and corporations. And for many leaders on campus, channelling people power through grassroots collective organizing—and figuratively dropping dead in front of authority figures—is the only way to hold major institutions accountable, effect change, and secure our rights.


Fossil fuel divestment has roots in the student movement, beginning on campuses in the United States in 2011. More than 100 educational institutions, many based in the U.S. and U.K., have since committed to divestment. The campus movement has also grown into something much bigger, reaching a vast range of influential establishments, including governments, religious organizations, and philanthropic groups. To date, more than 800 institutions have divested $5.5 trillion from the fossil fuel industry globally.

Divestment is part of the intersectional climate justice movement, which recognizes climate change is an ethical and political issue that disproportionately affects Indigenous people, people of colour, women, poor nations, and LGBTQ folks. The divestment movement is also largely driven by young people, generations who will be disproportionately burdened by the effects of climate change. Members of Divest Dal emphasized this point in fall 2016, when 30 students occupied an administration building on Dalhousie campus to receive stick-and-poke “birthmark” tattoos. Each person was marked with a three-digit tattoo representing the amount of carbon in the air in the year they were born. Climate scientists agree that 350 parts per million (PPM) is the safe limit for a healthy climate. Laura Cutmore patiently waited her turn and tried not to flinch as the needle dug into the skin of her wrist, marking her with a small 356. Last year, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air passed 400 PPM.

To date, more than 800 institutions have divested $5.5 trillion from the fossil fuel industry globally

“Getting a tattoo doesn’t seem very radical compared to the damage that’s being inflicted on the earth,” says Cutmore, who has been organizing with Divest Dal for about two years. A handful of people got tattoos after learning about the severity of the issue, and there was so much demand, Divest Dal had to set up another session at a later date.

Back in New Brunswick, student activists have taken on less permanent methods of action—writing and presenting reports to board members, hosting a sit-in at a local MP’s office, and staging a vigil in protest of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. But after years of lobbying, Divest MTA’s actions left administration unmoved. The group opted for an even more in-your-face demonstration than a die-in. Last March, they organized a three-day camp-out, occupying the lawn of the school in protest. They stayed put amid -10 C temperatures and a massive blizzard; many tents collapsed in the middle of the night. When Robert Campbell, the school’s president, refused to acknowledge the group’s presence, more than 80 people took the protest to the steps of his office, demanding a meeting.

Hours later, after they refused to leave, Campbell agreed to meet with Oh and another student. He disagreed that it was his role to recommend divestment and left soon after. Crestfallen and exhausted with no idea what to do next, Oh burst into tears. Much of the group cried with her. As she was taking down the camp, Oh started feeling significant pain. She realized that sleeping on the ground had aggravated a severe prior internal injury from a car accident. Later, at the ER, a doctor told her she should have been bedridden with agony days earlier; only the adrenaline kept her going.

Out west, Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie, a Two-Spirit Anishinaabe land defender from Sagkeeng First Nation, is a member of the divestment movement as a former student at the University of Winnipeg. Lavoie grew up with a deep connection to the environment, fishing and hunting with their family since they were young. But that environment is under threat. Located at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, Sagkeeng has been deeply affected by industry pollution and development projects, leading to the erosion of reserve lands and a decline of fisheries. Lavoie organized with Divest UW because they believe the school’s ongoing investment in fossil fuels is upholding colonizing behaviour. “It’s disrespecting Indigenous land rights, the right to denial of consent to pipelines, and Indigenous knowledge of what sustainability means,” they say. “It’s just a huge slap in the face for Indigenous students who want to come to a university where the school is respecting them and their connection to the environment.”

“I wanted to make it known that they didn’t break me. They weren’t going to silence me in any way”

The work done by divestment organizers is not restricted to the campus bubble. In October 2016, Lavoie, Oh, and Cutmore were three of 99 young people arrested on Parliament Hill as part of Climate 101, a youth-led mass civil disobedience in protest of rumours that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau planned to approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Two weeks later, Lavoie and Oh attended COP22, the United Nations Climate Change conference in Morocco, where they were part of a group of youth holding Canada accountable to its international environmental agreements. Lavoie also had a high-profile confrontation with the prime minister, standing behind him at a town hall in Winnipeg with a banner that read: “Water is Sacred / No Pipelines!” While there, Lavoie and a handful of other young people interrupted him to ask about the lack of Indigenous consent for government-approved resource extraction projects. Trudeau gave a short speech—in a tone Lavoie describes as condescending—about the importance of listening to each other respectfully and asked for permission to continue speaking. Gaining applause from people in the crowd, Trudeau told the young people that if they didn’t allow him to speak, he would have to ask them to leave. “I thought it was really ironic that he was asking for consent to speak but he was denying our right to consent to refuse these pipelines,” Lavoie says.

Lavoie graduated in October, but their work is far from over. When they crossed the stage to accept their diploma at graduation, Lavoie held up a banner that read, “Stop Funding Fossils.” “I wanted to make it known that they didn’t break me. They weren’t going to silence me in any way even though I was leaving the university,” they say. “I will never give up.”


Despite mounting pressure from students and alumni, Canadian post-secondary institutions have been hesitant to jump on board. After five years of organizing across the country, one major post-secondary institution has committed to full divestment. In February 2017, after a brief four-month campaign, Quebec City’s Laval University agreed to redirect its endowment fund investments in fossil energy elsewhere, including into renewable energy.

Alice-Anne Simard, who founded ULaval sans fossiles, says their campaign was similar to others across the country: They reached out to students, wrote letters and petitions, compiled researchbased reports, and gained support from student associations. She credits the victory to student involvement and one powerful administrator’s genuine commitment to sustainability. Most of all, administration at Laval recognized the value of bragging rights: The school can say it is the first university in Canada to divest, a claim to sustainable leadership that boosts their image.

Now Simard is encouraging other campaigns to organize, noting how bad it will look for a school to be the last to do so. This could be the reality for schools that have refused to address or flat-out reject divestment. The University of Toronto, McGill, and Queen’s are among schools whose boards of governors have considered and voted down tabled motions to divest. When McGill turned down divestment for the second time in 2016, it stated that there is no proof it would have a real-world impact.


A sign from the Mount Allison camp-out, where dozens of students set up tents in freezing temperatures to protest. Photo by Catherine Dumas, Radio Canada Acadie.

Some post-secondary institutions have responded by creating alternative investment policies. In 2017, UBC reversed its prior refusal to consider divestment, investing up to $25 million in a fossil-free fund over the next two years. A year earlier, the University of Ottawa committed to “shifting” its fossil fuel investments to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2030. And in 2015, Concordia University agreed to redirect half of its $10 million investment in fossil fuels elsewhere. But divestment organizers refuse to consider these steps victories, believing a rejection of full divestment undermines the idea of institutions distancing themselves from fossil fuel companies. Lavoie, for example, calls UWinnipeg’s plan to create a sustainable investment policy and optional fossil-free fund for donors a greenwashing measure taken to avoid concrete change.

When Canadian universities reject divestment, they frequently cite a fiduciary duty to students and shareholders, stating divestment would compromise the financial well-being of the school. Katie Perfitt, the Canadian divestment organizer with, an online organization that supports grassroots campaigns to oppose international oil, coal, and gas projects, says this financial argument has become the most prominent reason why universities refuse to reject divestment across the country. She hesitates to bring money into the divestment conversation—the purpose of the movement is to focus on and bring justice—but notes that some research shows divestment can be healthy for financial assets. A report by Genus Capital, a B.C. investment firm with a fossil-free investment division, shows that fossil-free funds performed just as well— sometimes better—than funds invested in the industry.

Perfitt also notes that the fossil fuel industry is on the decline. The Canadian oil industry currently relies on $3.3 billion in government subsidies a year. On a global scale, the expense of sustaining the fossil fuel industry is staggering—and on the rise. According to one report, subsidizing the global fossil fuel industry cost $4.9 trillion in 2013. By 2015, the cost rose to $5.3 trillion.

Those numbers account for government policies that lower the cost of fossil fuel production, raise the price received by producers, and lowers the price paid by consumers. But they also reflect broader costs, such as expenses related to global warming and deaths from air pollution. As the push for green energy grows, even the CEO of Shell has stated during a conference that public trust in the oil industry “has been eroded to the point that it is becoming a serious issue for [Shell’s] long-term future.”

The goal of the divestment movement, however, has never been to affect fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. “The idea isn’t that we’re trying to bankrupt them. We’re trying to stigmatize them in the public realm,” says Perfitt. “So many institutions in our world are complicit in the climate crisis by remaining tied to the fossil fuel industry. We want to expose those relationships, and bring an issue that otherwise would have not been in the public realm to light.”


In some places, these relationships are more evident than others. When Emma Jackson walks to class at the University of Alberta, she is bombarded by reminders of the institution’s intimate ties to oil companies. Hallways in academic buildings are covered in gold plaques boasting the names of major donors: Imperial Oil, Encana, Enbridge, Suncor.

“Everywhere you turn, you’re surrounded by donor walls dominated by oil and gas companies, student organizations branded by Shell, and corporate representatives who have been invited into academic departments as guest professors,” says Jackson.

It isn’t just U of A. Most postsecondary institutions are entangled with the industry beyond their investment portfolios. Oil companies regularly donate to universities across the country, funding research, scholarships, and fellowships. At UWinnipeg, Enbridge Pipelines Inc. funds a scholarship specifically for Indigenous students. Last August, Dalhousie announced a $2.2-million donation from Irving Oil to revamp the school’s engineering and architecture campuses; the donation will also fund more than $700,000 in scholarships, including co-op opportunities with the New Brunswick-based company.

In Edmonton, climate organizers were met with violent criticism—even death threats—from pipeline supporters

Katie Perfitt says one intention of such sponsorship deals on campuses is to “train our minds to think about those companies as just a natural part of our life. The fossil fuel industry wants to maintain control of the way we think about climate change and its relationship to the industry.” These deals also come with a more explicit ability to influence campus life. Leading up to Dalhousie’s 2014 vote on divestment, the school’s Dean of Science told media a representative from Shell threatened to withdraw academic funding if the motion passed. A Shell spokesperson later downplayed the concerns.

In October 2017, an investigation of the University of Calgary’s establishment of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability revealed a professor lost his position as director of the centre after he disclosed his opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.

It also named a “troubling” conflict of interest involving the school’s president, who at the time held a highly paid position on Enbridge’s board. The sponsorship came with a commitment from the university that it would “enhance Enbridge’s reputation.” (Enbridge denied this in a statement, calling it a “no-strings-attached” pledge.) The investigation called for an overhaul of the board of governor’s approval process, transparency in its decision-making, and stricter regulations on corporate gifts and sponsorships.

Jackson moved to Edmonton to pursue a master’s at the University of Alberta after nearly four years of organizing with Divest MTA. She says doing climate justice work is hard no matter where you are, but she finds it particularly challenging in Alberta, where ties to oil companies are pervasive.

There is interest in divestment on campus, but it’s one of the most difficult places to sustain momentum in Canada. One of the main challenges in Edmonton, Jackson says, is not that people are ardently pro-oil, but that they have “resigned themselves to the degree of influence the industry holds in the province and feel powerless in the face of it all.”

Because of the environment in Alberta, Jackson and other climate justice organizers in Edmonton are focusing their energy in areas other than divestment—in particular supporting Indigenous land and water protectors. Because of its proximity to the oil sands, Jackson refers to Edmonton as “ground zero of extractivism” in Canada. “Every pipeline that is being fiercely contested across Turtle Island can be traced back here,” she says. “So I think it becomes a question of how we can use this geographic position to our advantage.”

After it was announced that Energy East was killed, Jackson and a small group of activists dropped a “No Kinder Morgan” banner from the High Level Bridge to dispel the myth that all Albertans support the project. It was praised as a “beautiful action” by climate organizers, but was also met with violent and condescending criticism—even death threats—from pipeline supporters online.

Jackson says backlash is common when organizing around climate justice, but she has never received such a hateful response as after the banner drop. She thinks the reaction speaks to many workers’ fears about the industry losing ground. “It’s hard to contend with fear when it manifests as such violent anger,” she says. “But if we can find ways to cut through that and have people believe us when we promise they won’t be left behind, then we’ll have won.”


The anger and violence directed at those fighting the fossil fuel industry is far from confined to the west coast. Back at Mount Allison, Tina Oh can relate to Jackson’s experience. In 2016, she was followed home and videotaped by a member of the community in Sackville who is pro-oil and offended by Oh’s advocacy work. The person had confronted Oh before but never to such a physical extent. Terrified, she called the police. An officer told her that police get videotaped all the time, but they don’t complain about it.

“It was one of the last things you’d want to hear after being so scared and so removed from the positions of power that police are in,” says Oh.

Despite her fear and trauma, Oh can still make sense of the experience. “A lot of the attacks we get are from people who would be personally affected if we had a carbon-free future because the industry employs a lot of people and those people have mouths to feed,” she says. It’s personal for Oh too—she has family and friends who have been, and still are, employed by the Alberta oil industry.

She stresses that the climate justice movement is not forgetting about the workers of the industry, but making sure they’re being taken care of, too. Working to include industry labourers, she says, is just one way the divestment movement can improve.

Perfitt believes it could take a long time before we know the lasting impact of divestment campaigns in Canada. She knows campus organizers who have been working on this for many years are frustrated because they feel like they are not winning. “But as someone who has been in it for five years, I am constantly in awe of how powerful the movement has been and how transformative it’s been for hundreds of organizers,” she says. “One of the legacies of the campaign is that there are now hundreds of more people involved in the climate movement.”

Oh counts herself among that frustrated and exhausted group. But she says the Canadian campaigns’ collective tiredness has bonded them, and that connection has given them the momentum to go forward.

“The point of escalation is to escalate,” she says. “And after what we’ve been through, we have to keep going.”

Madi Haslam is a journalist in Tiotia:ke (Montreal) and a guest on traditional and unceded Kanien'kehá:ka territory. She is a research intern at Maisonneuve and a former intern at This.

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