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Opinion: U of T must partake in an Indigenous-centric climate plan

The university must address the intersectional implications of the global crisis
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EVELYN HAYES/THE VARSITY
EVELYN HAYES/THE VARSITY

Investing to Address Climate Change, a supposedly ‘landmark’ charter that the University of Toronto, among other Canadian universities, has signed, aims to adopt more responsible methods for investing in the fossil fuel industry. While the charter projects an eco-conscious image, it fails to effectively address the intersectional impacts of the climate crisis — notably, how universities’ affiliations with fossil fuel investment associate them with an industry that actively discriminates against Indigenous communities in Canada.

According to the Human Rights Watch, Indigenous communities in Canada are at a higher risk of suffering from COVID-19. This is due to systemic inequalities embedded within Canadian society, inequalities that include the climate-related food insecurity also being faced by Indigenous communities. The fight against the climate crisis is inseparable from the fight for Indigenous rights. 

U of T is not exempt from this struggle, as the discussion of the university’s investments within the fossil fuel industry has been a topic of heated debate for some time now. To guide its future investment endeavours, U of T has claimed that it will comply with the Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI), a United Nations-supported organization developed in 2005. PRI has two aims: to understand environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment factors, and to extend these factors to its investor signatories. 

PRI’s official statement reads, “[PRI believes] that an economically efficient, sustainable global financial system is a necessity for long-term value creation. Such a system will reward long-term, responsible investment, and benefit the environment and society as a whole.”

Notice that one of PRI’s goals is to create an economy that benefits “society.” An approach that truly benefits society should advocate for an intersectional approach to the climate crisis, understanding that its impacts exist outside of the economic dimension. However, it is unclear whether U of T understands the importance of this intersectionality. 

At the virtual discussion about the charter, U of T President Meric Gertler said that the charter “acknowledges the reality of climate change.” However, which reality is Gertler referring to? Does he consider the Indigenous reality of the climate crisis? 

Unfortunately, just like the charter itself, Gertler did not touch upon how U of T will ensure that its investments recognize Indigenous rights and land ownership. Specifically, Gertler did not touch upon how the university’s financial support of the fossil fuel industry, which indirectly involves them in development projects, will protect Indigenous peoples from the climate crisis’ impacts. 

At the discussion, Elisabeth DeMarco, an environmental lawyer, asked questions revolving around the risks of the climate crisis to companies and institutions. Gertler, in response to a question from DeMarco, discussed the impact of the climate crisis on manufacturing operations, transportation, and the economy as a whole. 

By choosing not to discuss the unfair relationship between the fossil fuel industry and  Indigenous communities, U of T illustrated that it is only concerned about money. 

The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous peoples need to give free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) in circumstances where the government wishes to exploit their land. Yet, despite FPIC requirements being recognized by the Canadian government, corporations continue to develop projects that violate Indigenous rights. 

One example is the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, a planned 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline. Despite 20 First Nations band councils approving its construction, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose the Canadian government trespassing on their unceded territory. In this sense, while Indigenous peoples were consulted prior to its construction, it ignored Indigenous law by not fulfilling its obligation to meet with hereditary chiefs. 

By continuing to support industries that infringe on the rights of Indigenous peoples, U of T, along with the charter’s other signatories, is not complying with PRI’s social ethics, nor its own commitments to fight against the climate crisis. 

The crisis disproportionately impacts Indigenous lives; this is a fact. A Human Rights Watch report illustrated one of its many impacts: due to tumultuous weather events impacting food supply, Indigenous communities in northern Ontario are currently struggling to maintain a healthy diet.

Katharina Rall, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, characterized the apparent environmental discrimination perfectly when she said that “[Indigenous people] are on the front lines of climate change” in an interview with the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

In the charter discussion, DeMarco remarked that U of T is leaning toward “action, not dogma.” However, by choosing to approach the climate crisis solely through the lens of fossil fuel investment, the university put the Indigenous reality on the backburner. Consequently, any promises it makes are inconsequential and illusory. 

U of T’s decision to sign the charter is agreeable to an extent. After all, the charter will mean that U of T incorporates ESG factors into its investment decision-making. However, while the charter demonstrates an awareness of the climate crisis, U of T needs to stop watching the crisis from its ivory tower and interact with the realities on the ground. 

By not having an inclusive discussion on investments, the charter is in no way a significant turning point in the fight against the climate crisis.

Alex Levesque is a second-year social sciences student at University College. He is the comment section’s climate crisis columnist.