If reconciliation and the climate crisis are to matter, U of T must divest from fossil fuels

U of T’s investments render its global leadership on the environment questionable

If reconciliation and the climate crisis are to matter, U of T must divest from fossil fuels

U of T holds a leading role in environmental sustainability practices. It has presented a number of initiatives which place students on the forefront of addressing the climate crisis.

The initiatives use knowledge and resources provided by the university to create a network that promotes sustainability practices and tackles climate issues globally.

However, some of U of T’s actions, most notably its investments in fossil fuel companies, are cause for calling this supposed leadership role into question.

This past July, President Meric Gertler attended a summit in Paris along with 47 other universities, who collectively comprise the U7+ Alliance. During the summit, the alliance voted unanimously to adopt six principles, ranging from efforts to “train and nurture responsible and active citizens who will contribute to society, from the local to the global level,” to “solve complex global issues through interdisciplinary research and learning.”

With its notable involvement in global summits and conferences, as well as the commitments made in the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability’s 2019 annual report, it is clear that U of T is a global leader when it comes to environmental and sustainability efforts.

However, in many ways U of T is acting in conflict with its own principles and values in how it is using its resources. When our money is put into industries that directly contribute to the same problems we are looking to combat, it creates a disconnect between promises made by the U of T bureaucracies and the actual actions implemented by them.

U of T promises to “address environmental issues and challenges, including sustainability and climate change,” and yet, according to Toronto350, a campaign group which calls on the university to divest from fossil fuel industries, it is heavily invested in fossil fuel companies, with “a significant portion of our ~$1.5 billion endowment devoted to this unsustainable industry.”

While U of T promises to “share [our] best practices with each other and other institutions around the world,” Toronto350 shows that we are invested in stock holdings in the “200 fossil fuel companies around the world with the largest reserves of coal, oil, and gas.”

U of T promises to “promote inclusion and opportunity while fostering ‘evidence-based public debate’ to combat societal polarization,” yet it is investing in the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on sacred Indigenous land in Hawaii. There, dozens of protesters, including 33 Native Hawaiian elders, have been arrested and continue to face confrontation by the police.

Promises like the ones mentioned above — which comprise half of the core principles the U7+ Alliance voted to adopt — can be seen as great strides toward environmental stewardship and sustainability. But investments in fossil fuel companies and disregard for Indigenous land rights betrays our promises toward these goals.

As an institution that holds a marked role in the global academic community with regard to environmental sustainability, U of T must do more to take responsibility and divest from these unsustainable and unethical companies.

True leadership would mean holding ourselves accountable to the promises we have made as a collective alliance with other institutions around the world. We rally other countries to partake in these initiatives with us, yet at the same time we hold investments that do not reflect our supposed values and principles. By prioritizing profits made from such investments, we pose a threat to the very cause we claim to fight for.

While so many of our environmental initiatives are progressive, U of T cannot continue to present itself as a leader while hypocritically investing in harmful industries. Rather than continuing to invest in fossil fuels, U of T should shift its investments into the renewable energy sector. This would not only better reflect our status as a leading university in sustainability practices, but might influence other universities to adopt clean energy initiatives. U of T must sincerely commit itself to the sustainability movement to be a true global leader.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Hafsa Ahmed is a third-year Political Science student at UTM.

U of T’s biggest stories of 2016

The Varsity looks back at events that made headlines this past year

U of T’s biggest stories of 2016
Divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Fossil fuel divestment report recommendations rejected

In February, U of T President Meric Gertler rejected recommendations from the Presidential Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels for the university to divest from companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” The decision came after three years of student protests calling for U of T to take a stronger leadership role in mitigating the effect of climate change, with student-led environmental advocacy group UofT350 at the forefront of the cause.

In the report detailing his decision, Gertler moved for the university to take a “firm-by-firm” approach to divestment as opposed to a blanket divestment approach. His method proposed making decisions based on environmental, social, and governance-based factors (ESG), the advantage being that UofT could reconcile its fiduciary responsibilities with climate action.

UofT350 expressed disappointment over Gertler’s decision, saying that his rejection of divestment “totally ignores the urgent need to act on climate change, suggesting that tactics like ESG, shareholder activism and carbon disclosure are sufficient to encourage rapid societal shifts to carbon free economies.” The group engaged in several protests against Gertler’s decision, including one at the 2016 Cressy Awards Ceremony, in which UofT350 members dropped banners criticizing the university’s inaction.

— Josie Kao



Food Services at UTSG taken over by university 

U of T announced in late January that the university would not be renewing its contract with Aramark, UTSG’s food services provider, and announced that it would take control of these services starting in August.

Employment under new management was offered to all UTSG Aramark employees, although UNITE HERE Local 75, the union representing Aramark employees on campus, cited concerns regarding job security, seniority, wages, and a 90-day probationary period after their re-hiring.

These concerns sparked protests on campus; food service employees, their friends and family, other unionized workers, and students participated. UNITE HERE Local 75 also organized a seven-day hunger strike, which took place during the June convocation. Seven people participated in this hunger strike, including two UTSG food services employees; food service workers employed elsewhere; and UNITE HERE international organizing director, David Saunders.

Nearly all of the 250 food service employees were re-hired by U of T  and are now represented by CUPE 3261. An increase in hourly wages was also offered to the former Aramark employees. Under the contract with the university, workers receive $20.29 per hour  up from the $12.00 to $12.80 most workers were paid while employed by Aramark. Additionally, their employment with the university includes health plans, vacation time, and a tuition waiver for the employees and their dependents.

— Shanna Hunter



Canadian Federation of Students faced criticism from U of T

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization that includes over 80 student unions from across the country, was the subject of a report released by the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) ad-hoc CFS committee.

The report detailed the relationship between the union and the federation and noted several concerns, including the unavailability of documents to the public, the powers granted to un-elected staff, and an “unnecessarily burdensome” process to leave the CFS.

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) unsuccessfully attempted to deferederate and remains a member of the CFS, after a legal decision was reached in July, despite the fact that 66 per cent of students who voted in the referendum of 2014 voted to leave the federation. The referendum was seven votes short of quorum.

A UTSG campaign, called You Decide UofT, was also launched to petition for a referendum on UTSU Local 98’s membership in the CFS. You Decide UofT has claimed impartiality on the question of defederation, but believes “students should have the opportunity to decide if they want to continue to be in the CFS.”

In September, UTSU was among ten signatories of an open letter to the CFS, which cited concerns such as a lack of transparency, excessive powers possessed by federation staff, a “closed” and “exclusive” tone set at general meetings, and an overly complicated process to leave the CFS. The federation’s chairperson, Bilan Arte, later responded, saying she would “ensure their concerns are addressed” and stated that she planned to follow up with each of the ten signatories.

 The CFS National Executive has since committed to making documents, such as financial statements, available online in hope of increasing transparency. Additionally, a motion to lower the signature threshold needed on petitions to trigger defederation referendums was approved at the CFS National General Meeting, which took place from November 18–21.

 — Shanna Hunter



U of T student, Tahmid Hasib Khan, held in Bangladesh then released 

U of T student Tahmid Hasib Khan was detained by police for suspected involvement in a hostage crisis in early July, when armed militants stormed into the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Khan was en route to a summer internship with UNICEF and stopped in Dhaka to visit his family. Five militants entered the restaurant while he was eating with friends, and held the patrons hostage.

Khan was among 13 hostages who escaped unharmed, but was taken into police custody after the attack. Khan’s friends and family demanded his release, but Khan’s status was unknown until August 4, when his arrest was announced by the Bangladeshi Police.

A Facebook page called “Free Tahmid” was created to support Khan’s release and has amassed over 67,000 likes. Weeks later, a video surfaced showing Tahmid holding a gun along an alleged attacker, but according to witnesses of the incident, Khan was forced by the militants to hold the weapon.  

U of T President Meric Gertler penned a letter to Global Affairs Canada and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, offering the university’s assistance. Global Affairs Canada noted that it was limited in how it could help Khan, due to the fact that he was not a Canadian citizen.

Khan was released in October, although he was charged with not cooperating with police for interviews on July 10th and 21st.

 — Vivian Li



A year at the UTSU: lawsuit, health coverage expansion, election disqualifications

The UTSU had initiated a lawsuit in September 2015 against its former President, Yolen Bollo-Kamara; its former Vice President Internal and Services, Cameron Wathey; and former Executive Director Sandra Hudson.The UTSU claimed that Bollo-Kamara and Wathey fraudulently authorized 2,589.5 hours of overtime pay for Hudson, leaving her with a severance package of $247,726.40, which accounted for approximately 10 per cent of the union’s operating budget. This was despite Hudson allegedly never having claimed any overtime hours during her employment.

In January, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)’s legal dispute with Bollo-Kamara came to a close after the union’s announcement that both parties had reached a settlement and it would no longer be pursuing a lawsuit against her. The union and Wathey settled their dispute in February. The terms of both settlements remain confidential, although Wathey’s affadavit, made public, stated that he did not financially benefit from the arrangement.

The UTSU’s legal dispute with Hudson is ongoing. Hudson argues that she earned the money that she was paid by the UTSU. She also filed a counterclaim against the union, seeking $300,000 in damages, and alleging that the union breached the confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses of their agreement.

Later in the year, it was announced that the union was expanding the services offered through the UTSU health and dental plan, including psychological care. The changes, which took effect in September 2016, entitled members to receive up to $100 of coverage per session with a registered psychologist, for up to 20 sessions per year.

The union’s elections in March took a surprising turn when all members of the 1UofT slate were disqualified after rulings from the union’s Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) and the election’s chief returning officer (CRO).

Complications also arose with the UTSU-led Student Commons project, with the union forecasting roughly $300,000 in operational deficits within the first year of the building’s opening.

In October, the UTSU’s proposal for a student levy averaging $3.75 per session for the next five years failed, with 74.5 per cent of voters voting against the fee. The proposed levy would have supported clubs, events, and student service funding.

After a history of annual general meetings (AGM) marked by delays, disruptions, and heated debates, this year’s UTSU’s AGM held on October 28 was praised for its civility and lack of controversy. The meeting saw three motions carried, including the establishment of an Appellate Board, for students to voice concerns or complaints about the election process. The other two motions concerned the union’s budgeting process.

— Emaan Thaver



Black Liberation Collective called for UTSU boycott

In October, the Black Liberation College called for a boycott of the UTSU and arranged a protest at the UTSU office, with posters plastering the UTSU office outlining the demands of BLC and identifying former and current members of UTSU by name for their alleged anti-Blackness.

The demands outlined by BLC of the UTSU were for increased funding for Black student groups on campus, for UTSU to drop its ongoing lawsuit with former UTSU executive director Sandra Hudson, and for UTSU to organize a town hall meeting to address the alleged systemic anti-Black racism within UTSU.

A statement released by UTSU after the protest addressed funding demands, stating that UTSU would establish “guaranteed funding for Level 3 clubs at the point of renewed recognition.”

On the lawsuit with Hudson, the statement called for “all individuals affected by the current legal dispute, including all parties to the lawsuit, to be treated with respect.”

In response to BLC demands for a town hall, UTSU held a town hall on November 10 regarding anti-Black racism that garnered five attendees. UTSU was lambasted by BLC for its lack of consultation with Black student groups on campus and poor organization, calling it a “useless” ploy “for good PR.”

Poor attendance at this initial town hall led to the cancellation of a second town hall on anti-Black racism that was meant to be held during the eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) week of activities. Though the UTSU stated it would organize another town hall in collaboration with Black student groups, but could not provide a timeline for when this would occur.

 — Lesley Flores



St. Michael’s College Students’ Union

The St. Michael’s College Students’ Union (SMCSU) has seen its fair share of controversy this academic year.

In late July, the college administration launched an investigation into SMCSU’s finances after finding evidence of financial mismanagement in the union’s practices.

According to a blog post published in September by David Mulroney, President of St. Michael’s College, the investigation found that SMCSU’s finances were “primarily cash-based due to the union’s frequent club nights that take cash at the door and are often poorly accounted for.”

Mulroney announced his decision to restructure the college’s relationships with its three main student-associated groups — SMCSU, the St. Michael’s College Residence Council, and The Mike newspaper — and assign an academic advisor for each group.

In December, the union again found itself in hot water when a set of Snapchat videos involving current and former SMCSU council members surfaced on social media, which were widely called Islamophobic.

Recorded by the union’s then-Vice President Kevin Vando at a birthday party held at the residence of former SMCSU Vice-President Joseph Crimi, the videos show a former SMCSU councillor reading from a book titled Islam for Dummies and singing, “Would you be my Muslim boy?” to the tune of Estelle’s “American Boy.”

The backlash following the leak of the videos saw Vando resign and condemnation from the UTSU. SMCSU released a statement distancing itself from the actions of the party attendees, stressing that the event had not been sponsored or endorsed by the union. It also announced that it was implementing mandatory equity training for all its council members.

Days later, SMCSU announced in a Facebook post that it would be proroguing its activities until early 2017. SMCSU President Zachary Nixon also resigned, and it is unclear who is currently at the helm of SMCSU.

— Emaan Thaver



Jordan Peterson 

U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson became the subject of international media attention after The Varsity reported on his YouTube lecture series criticizing “political correctness.”

In the first video, which he released on September 27, Peterson decries Bill C-16, a piece of federal legislation that would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to criminalize harassment and discrimination based on gender identity, as well as the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policies on discrimination based on gender identity. He also states in the video that he would decline a student’s request to be referred to by non-binary pronouns.

Several student groups on campus — including the UTSU, the Arts & Science Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union — issued statements criticizing Peterson’s remarks. In addition, activists from the trans community organized a rally and teach-in on trans issues in front of Sidney Smith Hall.

A week after that rally, students supporting Jordan Peterson held their own “U of T Rally for Free Speech” on campus, which was punctuated by conflict and outbursts of violence after it was met with counter-protests. The student group University of Toronto Students in Support of Free Speech was founded and recognized by Ulife after the rally. Subsequently, U of T announced that some members of the trans community on campus had received threats of violence on social media.

On October 23, Arts & Science Dean David Cameron and Vice-Provost Academic Programs Sioban Nelson sent a letter to Peterson, requesting that he refer to students by their requested pronouns and refrain from making such public statements. Peterson harshly criticized these letters, saying that they were attempts to silence him by the institution.

The university hosted a forum on Bill C-16 on November 19. Peterson debated Law Professor and Director of the Bonham Centre of Sexual Diversity at University College Brenda Cossman, and University of British Columbia (UBC) Professor of Education and Senior Associate Dean, Administration, Faculty Affairs & Innovation Mary Bryson. Mayo Moran, a U of T Law Professor who also serves as the Provost of Trinity College, moderated the forum.

Peterson has received ample publicity following his YouTube lectures, and has received a major influx of patrons on Patreon, a fundraising platform, since he began speaking publicly about political correctness.

— Tom Yun

Presidential divestment committee recommends “targeted divestment” from fossil fuels

Report calls for evaluation of companies’ actions

Presidential divestment committee recommends “targeted divestment” from fossil fuels

The presidential Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels has recommended that the University of Toronto divest from companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” In a 24-page report released the morning of December 16, the committee specified that the university’s focus should be on companies whose activities disregard international efforts to limit the rise in average global temperatures to less than 1.5-degrees Celsius.

“It is our view that fossil fuels firms engaging in activities that blatantly disregard the 1.5-degree threshold are engaging egregiously in socially injurious behaviour that is irreconcilable with internationally agreed limits to the rise in average global temperatures and thereby greatly increasing the likelihood of catastrophic global consequences,” reads part of the report.

The report comes after students involved with the divestment campaign at U of T presented a 190-page brief to the university in March 2014 urging for divestment from its direct holdings in fossil fuel companies. In response, U of T president Meric Gertler struck an ad-hoc committee in November 2014 to analyze the university’s position. Since that time, U of T students have participated in demonstrations calling for divestment and climate justice both on and off campus.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a second-year environmental studies student at U of T and divestment campaign lead with Toronto350, the local branch of climate justice advocacy group 350.org, said that the recommendations represent a positive step towards fulfilling the goal of calling for divestment from all fossil fuels.

“The committee recommendations reinforce the suggestion [at the COP21 climate conference] in Paris that the fossil fuel era is over and investors have to get out now,” said Harvey-Shanchez. “It also recognizes that the fossil fuel industry’s business model contradicts the 1.5ºC target,” she added.

“The divestment committee tackled its mandate with the same intellectual energy and integrity that so distinguishes our academic community and I wish to thank them personally for their efforts on my behalf and on behalf of the entire University of Toronto,” said Gertler of the committee’s work in an interview with U of T News.

The report highlights “firms that derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction” as the type of company from which U of T should divest. The committee recommends that U of T initiate an evaluation process to determine whether a fossil fuel firm’s actions abide by the 1.5-degree threshold.

“We leave it to the University to define fully what counts as ‘non-conventional or aggressive extraction,’” the committee said in the report, suggesting that methods such as open-pit mining of natural bitumen in Canada, Arctic extraction or exploration, and thermal coal mining in Canada and the United States, are examples of such extraction.

Although students from the campus divestment campaign hailed the committee’s recommendations as precedent for other educational institutions to follow suit, they said that U of T should also take action for communities harmed by climate change and fossil fuel extraction.

“We do feel that the committee recommendations ignore communities and people who are negatively affected by fossil fuel extraction,” said Harvey-Sanchez, identifying Indigenous communities among those most affected.

“The recommendation fails to acknowledge that fossil fuel companies who violate Indigenous peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent commit social injury,” campaign members said in a press release.

“I think now the [U of T] president has to stand on the right side of history and divest from all fossil fuels,” said Harvey-Sanchez.

Bryan Karney, an environmental engineering professor at U of T and member of the committee, told U of T News that the reason behind suggesting a targeted approach to divestment as opposed to a blanket approach was because the committee believes that some fossil fuels still offer invaluable benefits that currently cannot be achieved through other sources.

“The Committee acknowledges that certain activities, though socially injurious, nevertheless offer society indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained in any other way,” the report says.

The committee emphasized the role of U of T as an educational institution in contributing to the global effort to combat climate change and that following the recommendations in the report should be an important part of the university’s action. “The Committee respectfully calls upon our academic community to amplify its collective efforts — in climate change-related scholarship, education, innovation, and entrepreneurship — to help meet the overriding social and environmental issue of our time,” the committee said in the report.

The committee also cast mitigating the challenges of climate change as a continuous effort at U of T and an open dialogue on campus. “This process, undoubtedly, will continue and intensify past the completion and submission of this report; the Committee hopes that some of the recommendations and principles articulated here will help inform that future. Not everyone will agree. The debate will carry on, into the laboratories, common rooms, offices, and ultimately into classrooms and into the curriculum. This is, of course, exactly how it should be.”

U of T has lost $550 million by choosing not to divest from fossil fuels, report claims

Corporate Knights uses “decarbonizer tool” to generate data

U of T has lost $550 million by choosing not to divest from fossil fuels, report claims

A recent report by Corporate Knights, an organization that promotes “clean capitalism,” claims that the University of Toronto has lost over $550 million CAD by not divesting from fossil fuel firms over the course of the past three years.

“U of T is an institution that is designed to prepare students for the future and they should not be investing in companies whose business plans [are] built around making that future unliveable,” said Sam Harrison communication coordinator at UofT350, a group of climate justice organizers at U of T.

The application Corporate Knights used to analyse this loss is called the decarbonizer tool and allows a user to take an investment portfolio and retroactively divest it to create an alternate portfolio.

Corporate Knights ran a side-by-side comparison of U of T’s portfolio, one showing its current state, and another in which the university had divested from fossil fuels. The results stated that, for the past three years, the university has been consistently losing money in its fossil fuel investments.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, said that the issues of divestment and investment are mutually exclusive and are being wrongfully conflated. “Decisions about whether or not the university divest[s] from a company or an industry, those are not investments, so they can’t be motivated by a company or an industry’s profitability,” Blackburn-Evans said. “Divestment is focussed on essentially the university’s social responsibility in an investor, and then its response to activities or behaviours that may cause social injuries.”

When asked about the particular investments made, Blackburn-Evans said, “what [Corporate Knights is] basically saying is the university has lost a lot of money. I can’t confirm or deny that the university lost that money. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s about an investment decision right? It’s not about a divestment decision, so they’re making an argument that if the university had made a different investment decision perhaps they wouldn’t have lost this money?”

Harrison countered, “It is possible that [U of T] could divest from fossil fuels and then not use the money for anything else. That is highly unlikely. [We’re asking for the university to] divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies [and] if they do that they’re going to have a bunch of new money that they’re going to want to invest in something else.”

Harrison claimed that, while methodology used in producing these results may vary, the conclusion is clear that by investing in climate change the university is losing large sums of money that could have been used elsewhere.

Although he declined to speculate on the upcoming committee decision on whether or not to divest from fossil fuel firms, Harrison did note that if U of T went ahead with divestment, it would be a “brave” decision. “A lot of universities have not been divesting largely for reasons that are not credible and have been debunked,” he said.

Many other universities in North America have also been facing the same issues that arise from this heated debate. Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have decided not to divest and instead have agreed to spend around $300 million USD in the course of the next five years to research climate change and technology, developing “low-carbon energy centres” to produce sustainable energy. Universities in Canada such as Dalhousie and McGill have decided to be active as shareholders in the company.

Harrison, however, did not believe in the feasibility of what he called “shareholder activism.” He emphasized a need for U of T to go against the grain of Canadian universities and take a step outside the comfort zone of academic research.

So far, this issue has taken root among both students and faculty members. Lila Asher, another member of UofT350, organized a march in late October. “It’s upsetting that U of T still trusts fossil fuel companies with its money. These companies are irresponsible: they ignore climate science and can’t even turn a profit for student programs at this university,” said Asher in a press release.

On a global scale, climate change has become an increasingly popular issue. From November 30 to December 11, 2015,  delegates to the Paris Climate Change Conference will discuss the urgency of climate change and the devastation that it has caused in multiple parts of the world, as well as further damage that could be done. Due to the alarming nature of climate change, a new global agreement is on the table to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which the commitments will expire in 2020.

Harrison claimed that this should be reason enough to encourage fossil fuel divestment. “Academics aren’t usually big fans of big symbolic statements, but in lead up to one of the most important UN climate conferences ever there’s never been a more important time to have big symbolic statements.”

With files from Iris Robin