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The McGill Daily - - Table Of Contents - Marina Cupido and Xavier Richer Vis The Mcgill Daily

At 10: 15 a. m. on Tues­day, March 29, nine mem­bers of Di­vest Mcgill, a cam­pus cli­mate jus­tice group, en­tered the James Ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing through a back door and be­gan a sit- in in the re­cep­tion area out­side Prin­ci­pal Suzanne Fortier’s of­fice. They re­mained there for 72 hours, protest­ing the Board of Gover­nors ( Bog)’s re­cent de­ci­sion not to di­vest its hold­ings in the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try.

The BOG voted against di­vest­ment on March 23 dur­ing a closed ses­sion of a meet­ing out­side its reg­u­lar sched­ule. The agenda had not been pub­li­cized in ad­vance, un­like its other meet­ings. The Bog’s de­ci­sion fol­lowed the re­lease of a re­port by its Com­mit­tee to Ad­vise on Mat­ters of So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity (CAMSR), which claimed that cli­mate change does not cause “grave so­cial in­jury,” and that di­vest­ment was there­fore un­war­ranted.

Dur­ing their sit-in, the ac­tivists met with Fortier for their first for­mal meet­ing in two years to dis­cuss their frus­tra­tion with the Bog’s de­ci­sion and ar­tic­u­late their de­mands. The Daily pro­vided live cov­er­age of events from the re­cep­tion room through­out the week.

Mean­while, a larger group of Di­vest Mcgill mem­bers and sup­port­ers set up camp in Com­mu­nity Square, where they held daily ral­lies and “teach-ins” in sup­port of di­vest­ment. The week of protest cul­mi­nated in a cer­e­mony on Fri­day morn­ing dur­ing which sev­eral Mcgill alumni re­turned their diplo­mas to protest the Bog’s de­ci­sion.

Di­vest’s de­mands

The ac­tivists stag­ing the sitin in Fortier’s re­cep­tion room had three de­mands for the ad­min­is­tra­tion: that the Univer­sity hold pub­lic hear­ings on the CAMSR re­port and ed­u­ca­tional events con­cern­ing di­vest­ment and cli­mate change and that the con­cerns raised at these events be ad­dressed in a re­vised ver­sion of the re­port sub­mit­ted by Jan­uary 2017; that CAMSR pub­licly dis­close all ex­pert tes­ti­mony gath­ered dur­ing its in­ves­ti­ga­tion on cli­mate change and di­vest­ment; and that Fortier make a pub­lic state­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing that the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try causes grave so­cial harm.

Shortly af­ter their ar­rival in the re­cep­tion room, the ac­tivists were met by Vice-pres­i­dent (Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Fi­nance) Michael Di Grappa, Vice-pres­i­dent (Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Ex­ter­nal Re­la­tions) Olivier Mar­cil, and Chief of Staff Su­san Aber­man, who re­ceived copies of Di­vest Mcgill’s de­mands.

At this ini­tial meet­ing, the ad­min­is­tra­tion called the de­mands un­re­al­is­tic, deny­ing the broad sup­port in the Mcgill com­mu­nity for fos­sil fuel di­vest­ment.

Later that day, Dean of Stu­dents An­dré Costopou­los stopped by the re­cep­tion area, and spoke briefly with Emily Boyt­inck, a mem­ber of Di­vest Mcgill and cur­rent Stu­dents’ So­ci­ety of Mcgill Univer­sity (SSMU) VP Ex­ter­nal. Se­cu­rity per­son­nel had ini­tially told the group that they could not stay in the room, and re­peat­edly told them to leave. Costopou­los, how­ever, said oth­er­wise, telling Boyt­inck that “as long as [the sitin is] safe and there’s no dan­ger, there’s no rea­son for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to act in any way.”

Life in­side the James Ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing

Dur­ing the next 48 hours, there was vir­tu­ally no in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the nine stu­dent ac­tivists. Soon af­ter the stu­dents’ ar­rival in the re­cep­tion area, se­cu­rity per­son­nel were sta­tioned out­side the ex­te­rior doors, and all doors lead­ing to the in­ner of­fices were dou­ble-locked.

Mean­while, staff em­ployed in the in­ner of­fices were di­rected by Mcgill Se­cu­rity to take an al­ter­nate route through the build­ing, to avoid the re­cep­tion room. On Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, the sec­ond day of the sitin, some of the stu­dents ex­pressed frus­tra­tion over this, telling The Daily that they felt some­what ig­nored by the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

As the sit-in con­tin­ued, the cramped phys­i­cal space be­gan to take its toll on the pro­test­ers. Fortier’s re­cep­tion room lacks win­dows, so for much of the week, the only source of fresh air was through a slightly open win­dow in a nearby wash­room.

Ad­di­tion­ally, some of the lights in the room were re­port­edly mo­tion-ac­ti­vated, and re­mained on through­out the sit-in, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to sleep. By Thurs­day morn­ing, many of the ac­tivists de­scribed feel­ing rest­less, ex­hausted, and some­what dis­ori­ented as a re­sult of the con­stant flu­o­res­cent glare com­bined with the lack of fresh air and nat­u­ral light.

The stu­dents were also not per­mit­ted to walk around in the ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing ex­cept to ac­cess a nearby wash­room and wa­ter fountain. They were only al­lowed to de­scend to the lobby one at a time to meet with mem­bers of the press and re­ceive de­liv­er­ies of food from sup­port­ers.

De­spite the men­tal and phys­i­cal stresses of their en­vi­ron­ment, the mood in the re­cep­tion room re­mained over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive through­out the week.

In a post on Di­vest Mcgill’s web­site pub­lished on Wed­nes­day, ac­tivist Ava Mohs­enin, who was a part of the sit-in, wrote: “It’s easy to feel iso­lated up here – no sun­light, no win­dows,

no show­ers, no vis­i­tors ex­cept for The Mcgill Daily. But what is keep­ing us [...] hope­ful and in­spired is the grow­ing num­ber of campers out­side, camp­ing with us for cli­mate jus­tice. [...] It’s the Univer­sity of Toronto lock­ing their Pres­i­dent’s Of­fice in re­sponse to our sit-in, fear­ing their di­vest­ment cam­paign will fol­low suit. It’s the me­dia [cov­er­age that] draws at­ten­tion to our call for trans­parency.”

Speak­ing to The Daily, an­other ac­tivist present at the sit-in, who wished to re­main anony­mous, shared Mohs­enin’s pos­i­tive out­look. “I hold [the other stu­dents here] in the high­est re­spect,” he said, “and I con­sider them fel­low ac­tivists that I can re­ally con­fide in. [Our] ad­van­tage is in our sol­i­dar­ity, and I think that’s where [the op­po­nents of our cause] fall apart. Our dy­nam­ics are sur­pris­ingly [...] com­posed, [given] the amount of stress we’ve been un­der.”

He also ex­pressed an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the gen­er­ally pleas­ant and ac­com­mo­dat­ing staff and se­cu­rity per­son­nel who in­ter­acted with the ac­tivists, an opin­ion echoed by the rest of the group on more than one oc­ca­sion.

The only in­ci­dent of di­rect con­fronta­tion be­tween the ac­tivists and staff oc­curred on Tues­day morn­ing, im­me­di­ately af­ter the group’s ar­rival in the re­cep­tion room. As Aber­man was en­ter­ing the re­cep­tion area from Fortier’s of­fice, Di­vest mem­ber Michael Lif­shitz at­tempted to hold open the door to al­low the group to get through, even­tu­ally sit­ting down in front of it.

A build­ing em­ployee then as­saulted Lif­shitz, pulling him roughly away from the door­way, and at one point at­tempt­ing to shut the door while his arm was in the way. A McGill Se­cu­rity of­fi­cer present at the scene made no ef­fort to in­ter­vene di­rectly, but in­stead yelled at Lif­shitz, who re­mained sit­ting, to get out of the way. The of­fi­cer also told The Daily’s re­porter that she did not have the right to be tak­ing pho­tographs, and at­tempted to block her view as the as­sault was in progress.

The Daily con­tacted Mcgill Se­cu­rity to ask why this in­ci­dent was al­lowed to take place, given that Mcgill Se­cu­rity’s stated mis­sion is to pro­tect the Mcgill com­mu­nity, but has re­ceived no re­ply at the time of pub­li­ca­tion.

Meet­ing with Fortier

When the ac­tivists be­gan their sitin on Tues­day morn­ing, Fortier was in Cal­i­for­nia vis­it­ing Stan­ford Univer­sity. How­ever, she re­turned on Thurs­day, and ar­rived at the re­cep­tion room at 2:30 p.m. with Provost Christo­pher Man­fredi to meet with the stu­dents. Ac­cord­ing to ac­tivist Jed Lenet­sky, Fortier had not spo­ken di­rectly with Di­vest Mcgill since the sum­mer of 2014, and had re­fused to meet with them sev­eral times dur­ing the past few months.

Dur­ing Thurs­day’s meet­ing, Fortier and Man­fredi re­peat­edly in­sisted that their pri­or­ity was to fol­low the rec­om­men­da­tions of the CAMSR re­port, which in­cluded “look­ing at op­por­tu­ni­ties for, and sup­port­ing, sound in­vest­ments in al­ter­na­tive [...] en­ergy firms, al­ter­na­tive tech­nol­ogy devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial­iza­tion,” and rais­ing aware­ness about cli­mate change.

In re­sponse, the Di­vest Mcgill mem­bers said that sup­port­ing a tran­si­tion to clean en­ergy would cer­tainly be worth­while, but that the CAMSR re­port it­self and the non-trans­par­ent way in which it was pre­sented and voted on were deeply prob­lem­atic.

The stu­dents’ first de­mand was that the re­port be rewrit­ten to ad­dress the com­mu­nity’s crit­i­cisms, but Fortier main­tained that the re­port had been voted on, and was fi­nal. Bu­reau­cratic pro­cesses such as this must be re­spected for the sake of democ­racy, she ar­gued. A Di­vest Mcgill mem­ber replied that “democ­racy works best when those who are de­ci­sion [mak­ers] rep­re­sent the com­mu­nity.”

Boyt­inck ar­gued that the re­port should be rewrit­ten, say­ing, “[This re­port] didn’t even talk about Indige­nous con­sent and that is par­tic­u­larly trou­bling. [...] I don’t un­der­stand how we can have these pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion ses­sions on this re­port that has such in­con­sis­ten­cies and com­pletely ig­nore the re­al­i­ties of stu­dents on your own cam­pus, and yet refuse to change the re­port.”

With re­gard to Di­vest Mcgill’s sec­ond de­mand, Fortier told the group that for CAMSR to re­veal in­for­ma­tion about the ex­perts con­sulted with­out their con­sent would be a vi­o­la­tion of their free­dom of speech. How­ever, she and Man­fredi agreed to ask for the ex­perts’ per­mis­sion to re­lease their in­for­ma­tion.

Fortier cat­e­gor­i­cally re­fused the ac­tivists’ third de­mand: that she pub­licly ac­knowl­edge the grave so­cial in­jury caused by the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try. Cli­mate change causes so­cial harm, she told the group, but not grave so­cial harm. She went on to sug­gest that the so­cial harm caused by fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies was com­pa­ra­ble to that caused by in­di­vid­u­als.

“For the most part,” Fortier said, fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies “are law­ful com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing within the law.” She then asked an in­cred­u­lous Di­vest McGill mem­ber if they them­selves had ever bro­ken a law.

Af­ter the meet­ing, The Daily spoke with sev­eral of the stu­dent ac­tivists at the sit-in.

“It both­ers me that when they’re mak­ing these de­ci­sions, de­cid­ing that the fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies don’t cause grave so­cial in­jury to Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties or [marginal­ized] com­mu­ni­ties in gen­eral, they’re di­rectly ig­nor­ing their Indige­nous stu­dents. It’s in­sult­ing to [those] stu­dents,” said So­phie Birks.

“I felt help­less. [...] I feel like [Fortier] just doesn’t hear us,” said Mohs­enin.

In the press re­lease pub­lished by Di­vest Mcgill af­ter the meet­ing, ac­tivist Ju­lia Bugiel, who had not been present in the re­cep­tion room, wrote: “The [BOG] ig­nor­ing un­law- ful acts by fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies with the rea­son­ing that all com­pa­nies break the law; the nar­row-minded view of so­cial in­jury; the fun­da­men­tal ig­no­rance of our ar­gu­ments; these all point to a Prin­ci­pal who is fail­ing Mcgill by not up­hold­ing the high intellectual stan­dard for which the univer­sity is known.”

Di­ploma re­turn­ing cer­e­mony

Di­vest Mcgill’s week of protest cul­mi­nated at 11:30 a.m. on Fri­day April 1, when dozens of Mcgill stu­dents and alumni gath­ered out­side the James Ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing to par­tic­i­pate in a di­ploma re­turn­ing cer­e­mony. Planned by Di­vest Mcgill and alumni, the event pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for Mcgill grad­u­ates to ex­press their opin­ions on the Bog’s re­fusal to di­vest.

Af­ter ex­it­ing the build­ing, the nine Di­vest mem­bers who par­tic­i­pated in the sit-in spoke to the crowd gath­ered out­side, con­demn­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lack of mean­ing­ful ac­tion on cli­mate jus­tice, and bring- ing at­ten­tion to on­go­ing acts of protest at cam­puses across the coun­try.

Each of the nine ac­tivists pledged their sup­port to the move­ment, speak­ing one at a time:

“We pledge to never give up un­til Mcgill di­vests from the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try. [...] We pledge to be on the right side of his­tory. [...] We pledge to con­tinue our activism, cog­nizant of the rights of Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, and the strug­gles of other ac­tivists across cam­pus. [...] We pledge to per­sist in di­rect ac­tions, so we don’t have to re­turn our diplo­mas when we grad­u­ate.”

Fol­low­ing this, alumni stood in front of the crowd, one by one, ex­plain­ing why they were re­turn­ing their diplo­mas.

Nagh­meh Sa­bet, one of the alumni re­turn­ing her di­ploma, ex­plained that she was a port­fo­lio man­ager at Sco­tia­bank. She said that a client had re­cently asked her to man­age a $2 mil­lion do­na­tion to Mcgill. Upon re­ceiv­ing Fortier’s email an­nounc­ing the Bog’s vote against di­vest­ment, she con­sulted with her client, and they de­cided not to make the do­na­tion af­ter all. Un­til Mcgill di­vests, she im­plied, she would ad­vise her other clients not to do­nate to the univer­sity, ei­ther.

“The funds that will not come to Mcgill will hurt,” she said, to loud cheer­ing from the crowd. “We don’t speak loudly, we do not oc­cupy build­ings, as these coura­geous peo­ple do, but we speak a lan­guage [Fortier] will un­der­stand very soon.”

A speaker from the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, Kata Kuh­n­ert, con­cluded the event, re­spond­ing di­rectly to CAMSR’S con­tro­ver­sial claims: “I can tell you that there is se­vere, grave so­cial in­jury caused by fos­sil fu­els.” North­ern com­mu­ni­ties are marginal­ized and of­ten vul­ner­a­ble to dis­crim­i­na­tion, said the speaker, and their lives and their en­vi­ron­ment are be­ing trans­formed by the cat­a­strophic ef­fects of cli­mate change. The di­ploma re­turn­ing cer­e­mony ended at noon, con­clud­ing the week’s events.

Mem­bers of Di­vest Mcgill af­ter ex­it­ing the sit-in. Harry Tain­ton | Pho­tog­ra­pher

Nagh­meh Sa­bet at the Di­ploma Re­turn­ing Cer­e­mony. Harry Tain­ton | Pho­tog­ra­pher

Fortier meets Di­vest. Marina Cupido | The Mcgill Daily

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