Concordia University will divest from all investments in oil, gas and coal, a decision that reflects increasing attention to climate change and highlights a political divide between Quebec and Western Canada on the future of resource industries.
The Concordia University Foundation, which handles more than $240-million in assets, said it would end its investments in the sector within five years. It also set a target of having all its assets classified as sustainable investments by 2025.
Concordia interim president Graham Carr said the decision is both ethically and financially consistent with the aims of the university.
“Climate change is obviously a major challenge of our time,“ Mr. Carr said. “We're trying to create an alignment between the content of the research and the teaching that we do and the actions that we take as an institution.”
The Montreal university is among a small group to commit to fossil fuel divestment, following in the footsteps of Laval University, which made a similar commitment in 2017, and the University of Quebec at Montreal, among others. There have been campaigns calling for divestment at more than 35 Canadian universities, but most have resisted or put off a decision pending further study.
The willingness of Quebec schools to opt for divestment may be a reflection of regional economic and political concerns. Quebec is a significant producer of hydroelectricity, but not oil and gas.
In the recent federal election, voters in the West and Quebec expressed contrasting views on the Liberal government’s support for resource industries. In Western Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hammered for doing too little to support resource industries, while in Quebec the sense was that he hadn’t done enough to tackle climate change. That difference in perspective between East and West remains a source of tension in the federation and provides a political backdrop to Concordia’s announcement.
Martha Hall Findlay, president of the Canada West Foundation, said she understands the intentions behind divestment campaigns, but considers them ineffective symbolic gestures.
“I think it’s completely misguided,” Ms. Hall Findlay said, speaking of such campaigns in general. “The symbolism is important, but I prefer to get things done. And there are more folks recognizing that being at the table can accomplish more than simply vacating the space.”
She said many people in Western Canada understand the need to tackle climate change, but in the meantime, demand for oil and gas remains high. They struggle to understand why other Canadians wouldn’t support the domestic industry.
“There’s a real sense of frustration with the hypocrisy,” she said.
In recent years, a broader environmental movement has targeted organizations such as universities, pension funds and religious groups to ask that they sell their stakes in traditional energy companies. Their arguments are both moral and economic: that to profit from companies engaged in activities that contribute to climate change is wrong, and that with growing attention on reducing carbon use, stock prices have declined and may fall further.
More than 1,000 organizations across the continent have committed to divestment, according to James Rowe, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria and an organizer of a local divestment campaign. But campaigns have been less successful on Canadian campuses. That’s in part because Canada is a large oil and gas producer, he said.
Naomi Mumbi Maina, a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan who has studied the divestment movement at Canadian postsecondary schools, said the typical pattern has been for institutions to engage with concerns from students and staff, ask for more research and then chart a different course.
“Students have been frustrated over and over again. They’ve been asked by boards of governors to present the case for divestment and students have done elaborate research on why this is needed and the frustration has always been that the board of governors has either demanded something else or outright said no to divestment," Ms. Maina said.
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