Skip to main content

University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario on April 29, 2019. Martha Billes, a well-known figure in Canadian business, has resigned as chancellor of the University of Guelph over the institution’s decision to divest itself from fossil fuels.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Martha Billes, a well-known figure in Canadian business, has resigned as chancellor of the University of Guelph over the institution’s decision to divest itself from fossil fuels.

“It is with a heavy heart that I inform our U of G community that Martha Billes has decided to step down as chancellor,” Guelph president Franco Vaccarino said in a statement.

“Martha has been a devoted ambassador for the university, enthusiastically supporting students and working hard to represent the university to government and to the public. We appreciate her many contributions, both as chancellor and as a proud U of G alumna.”

Mr. Vaccarino confirmed that the decision was prompted by the vote of the university board of governors in April to divest its endowment fund of investments in fossil fuel companies. Ms. Billes, an ex-officio voting member of the board, had opposed the motion.

“For over 40 years, I have been an investor in business ventures including the oil business in my home city of Calgary and my family business, Canadian Tire Corp.,” Ms. Billes said in a statement. “My decision to resign as Chancellor was prompted by the incompatibility of my business interests with the Board of Governors’ decision to divest from fossil fuel companies in its endowment portfolio.”

Megan Peres, a recent Guelph graduate and spokeswoman for Fossil Free Guelph, the group that pushed the divestment campaign for nearly seven years, said she took part in the April meeting online at which Ms. Billes made clear her opposition to divestment and spoke of her long-standing personal connection to the industry. But Monday’s announcement of Ms. Billes’ resignation still came as a shock, she said.

“We’re sad to see that she was unable to support this step in the transition towards a sustainable future,” Ms. Peres said. “We’re surprised that someone in a leadership role at such a large educational institution would have such an adverse reaction to what we see as an important first step for our collective future.”

Fossil Free Guelph had focused its campaign for years on the moral and emotional arguments for divestment. But it found it was the economic argument for divestment that was most persuasive, particularly this year, as oil prices and the fortunes of many related companies have plummeted.

“The financial argument is now completely undeniable,” said Gabrielle McPolin, a Guelph student involved in the divestment movement.

Guelph is one of a relatively small number of Canadian universities to commit to divestment. Concordia University voted to divest in 2019, following in the footsteps of other Quebec institutions such as Laval and the University of Quebec at Montreal. The University of British Columbia also committed to divestment in late 2019. More than 35 Canadian universities have faced campaigns calling for divestment, but most resisted or put off a decision pending further study.

Ms. Billes was named chancellor in 2017. She became the sole controlling shareholder at Canadian Tire in 1997, the company co-founded by her father, A.J. Billes. Initially, Ms. Billes was not encouraged to join the family business, but rose to prominence anyway after taking her father’s board seat in 1980. At the time of her investiture as chancellor, she credited her self-belief to some of the lessons she received as a student at the Macdonald Institute, one of Guelph’s founding colleges, from which she graduated in 1963.

The role of chancellor is largely ceremonial, but it includes the duty to preside at convocations, confer degrees and act as an ambassador for the school. The chancellor also holds a vote at the university senate and board of governors.

The university said it will soon begin a search for a successor to Ms. Billes.

Editor’s note: (May 5, 2020): An earlier version of this article included a headline which incorrectly said Martha Billes was born in Calgary.

Be smart with your money. Get the latest investing insights delivered right to your inbox three times a week, with the Globe Investor newsletter. Sign up today.