On September 13, Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) announced that Victoria University’s Board of Regents (BoR) approved the sale of a property in Weyburn, Saskatchewan that houses an active oil well. 

Mary Mounfield — a U of T alumna — donated the property, which had also been her family farm, to Victoria University in 2001. The oil well produced approximately $200,000 in yearly revenue, and the bulk of the profit has been used to fund the Vic One program, an academic program for first-years that Mounfield helped found.

This decision comes nearly a year after Victoria University President Rhonda McEwen committed to divesting from the oil well and roughly six months after student activists occupied Victoria College’s “Old Vic” building to demand divestment, after which Victoria University decided to divest its endowments from fossil fuel companies. 

On September 12, Trinity College was the last of the three federated colleges to commit to divesting from fossil fuel companies by 2030.

Student activism against Victoria College’s ownership of the well has focused on climate change concerns. Emissions from Canada’s oil and gas extraction industry made up 22.4 per cent of emissions in 2020.

Board of Regents’ decision

On April 13, Victoria University’s BoR passed a motion to divest its endowment portfolio from fossil fuel companies by 2030. The federated college invests part of its $250 million endowment in pooled funds, which external managers use to invest in other companies. In a statement, McEwen noted that between six million to nine million dollars of these pooled funds are allocated to fossil fuel companies.

A recent statement from McEwen said the sale of the oil well property aligns with Victoria University’s commitment to sustainability initiatives, as outlined in its five-year Strategic Framework, as well as its goal to divest from fossil fuels by 2030. 

McEwen wrote, “Planning is currently underway to determine how the proceeds for the sale, which will remain as part of the endowment, may contribute to further sustainability efforts on campus.”

In an email to The Varsity, a spokesperson for Victoria University explained that the proceeds for the sale will be determined by the BoR, which includes student representatives as well as senior leaders.

According to the spokesperson, Victoria University has integrated sustainability into its future plans for the federated college. As part of its commitment to increasing transparency, it has updated its website to include its progress on a number of sustainability initiatives. 

“The coming years will see many more exciting sustainability initiatives on campus,” said the spokesperson. “For example, assessing the use of geothermal energy and making our century-old buildings more sustainable.”

Student reaction

On September 15, VUSAC’s Victoria College Sustainability Commission, issued a press release, saying the property sale was a “triumph” for students and faculty, but by selling the oil well, Victoria University continues to profit off of it.

Student leaders have also criticized the lack of transparency regarding how the proceeds of the sale will be allocated. The press release states that many students on campus are demanding “more transparency and more concrete promises that can lead to genuine redress.”

In an email to The Varsity, Leah McKinney — VUSAC Sustainability Commission Co-chair — wrote that since learning of the oil well last year, student advocates have been calling for the administration to dismantle it, not sell it.

McKinney wrote that the sale does not prevent the production of oil and allows Victoria University to create “an appearance of sustainability while generating a profit from the sale.” 

“Given the recent increase in oil prices since July, it appears the board of regents chose an opportune time to offload this ‘asset,’ ” she continued. “While it is a step in the right direction to dissociate the university from fossil fuel extraction, it is critical that we are wary of what is genuine progress and what is greenwashing.”

In an email to The Varsity, Climate Justice UofT organizer Mathis Cleuziou wrote that the group has been advocating against the oil well since the Victoria College divestment campaign in April. 

Cleziou acknowledged that selling the oil well is a step in the right direction, but wrote that owning the well made Victoria College “an active beneficiary of the climate crisis” and demonstrated “[an] attitude of indifference all federated colleges have had throughout the push for divestment.”

In a joint interview with The Varsity, VUSAC President Shane Joy and Vice-President External Cameron Miranda-Radbord commended Victoria University for the progress it has made on divestment and the oil well sale, but said that more work needs to be done. 

According to Joy, VUSAC and student members of the BoR will be working closely to ensure that Victoria College makes progress on sustainability initiatives and prioritizes transparency for students. 

“It’s imperative that we are ensuring that administrators are held accountable to these initiatives, because oftentimes, a commitment can be made [and then there’s] no progress” Joy said. “So ensuring that there’s things such as annual reporting, letters to the community — those things must happen and will happen this year.”