‘An important part of social dialogue’: A look into UBC’s history of divestment

In November 2019, student activists for climate justice swarmed the UBC Board of Governors (BoG) meeting demanding that the university divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Forty-one years earlier, students did the same to shame UBC for its investments in Chilean mining companies.

The issue of divestment has earned itself a spot at the forefront of university politics. From fossil fuels extraction to human rights abuse, a chorus of moral calls for UBC to sever its ties with businesses and states have broken out over the past decade.

The process of divestment has shown how the structures of a university can be entangled with larger ones. These student-led movements exist as satellites in a constellation of others operating on and off university campuses. They also track shifts in public opinion and policy.

To better understand burgeoning divestment movements, we can look back in history to trace their roots.

Beginnings of a movement

UBC’s divestment story began in 1978, when students pressured the university to sell its shares in Noranda, a mining company that operated in Chile. Student groups, like Project Chile, criticized Noranda’s role in propping up Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

“The university’s investment policy should reflect the highest values that a society should attain because that is the nature of the university,” said George Hermanson, university chaplain and member of Project Chile, to The Ubyssey in the summer of 1978.

Hermanson and his other activists succeeded in getting UBC to hear their protest. UBC sold $260,000 worth of Noranda shares following a week-long campaign that involved showing films and gathering signatures.

Although UBC would later reinvest in Noranda — quietly purchasing $535,000 worth of its stock in 1983 — the Project Chile campaign marked the beginning of public scrutiny of the disconnect between the university’s stated values and its financial practices.

Soon after its Noranda controversy, UBC found itself implicated in another human rights crisis — the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

In the early 1980s, student movements supporting resisters of the regime organized on campuses across Canada. By 1983, Queen’s University had already held a referendum on divestment from South Africa, while various student groups at the University of Toronto joined to form the Anti-Apartheid Network.

Students campaigned at UBC too, but action was much slower.

In 1985, McGill became the first Canadian university to fully divest from all companies with ties to the South African government, with York and Dalhousie following suit soon after. Meanwhile, UBC refused to release information about its investments in South Africa, which were later revealed to total over $1 million.

Students for a Free Southern Africa (SFSA), a student group protesting UBC’s financial support of the regime, continued to pressure the university. After a failed petition to ban South African products from the Student Union Building, the group launched an educational campaign and organized rallies, eventually compelling the university to pursue partial divestment in February 1986.

Organizers deemed this response “half-hearted.”

“We should go all the way instead of only going half way. One is either for or against apartheid,” said Leslie Roosa, an organizer for SFSA, to The Ubyssey in 1986.

Now, Roosa remembers the SFSA as a “real cast of characters” from different backgrounds, all of whom believed that Apartheid was morally reprehensible and that something needed to be done.

“I think people just really felt it was important,” Roosa said. “This [also] wasn’t revolutionary … the UN had already declared in the early 1960s that this was not okay, and that people should start divesting.”

Although UBC never fully divested, Roosa said that its partial divestment from South Africa made a difference and that divestment remains a worthy pursuit for contemporary activists.

Roosa said “it’s an important part of social dialogue to keep issues on the table,” even if divestment is a symbolic action.

“I’ve been talking about divesting … for most of my life,” Roosa said.

“It only truly becomes effective when everybody does it. The problem is, not everybody is going to do it.”

Investing in a sustainable future

In an opinion letter published by The Ubyssey in 2012 titled “Oil and gas money sucks up UBC’s green sheen,” Gordon Katic described UBC’s investments in fossil fuels as “blatant hypocrisy.” He questioned UBC’s public image as a sustainability leader in the context of its money.

“What good is it to mould future leaders if our investments ensure there will be no future to lead?” Katic wrote.

“UBC should divest itself completely from the oil and gas sector, and it should then write ethical and environmental investment policy into [UBC Investment Trust’s (IMANT)] ‘Statement of Investment Policies and Procedures’,” wrote Katic.

After nearly a decade, this vision has partially come to fruition.

In 2019, UBC Allard School of Law Dr. Stepan Wood challenged the legal logic behind the fiduciary duty argument. He argued UBC might actually have a duty to divest from fossil fuel companies whose activities conflict with the university’s stated purpose.

“All three of [the university’s] purposes — advancing a sustainable and just society, fostering global citizenship and avoiding misinformation — also apply to UBC’s management of its own money,” Wood wrote.

On December 5, 2019, the BoG unanimously passed a resolution to support the full divestment of fossil fuels from the Trek Endowment Fund and directed the administration to transfer $381 million from this fund into low-carbon, fossil fuel-free investments in the Sustainable Future Pool.

To maintain its commitment to climate action, the university also established a group of faculty, appointed board members and investment professionals to continue the evaluation of investment alternatives.

In a CTV article published a day after the passed resolution, members of UBC’s chapter of Extinction Rebellion — an environmental movement — say UBC’s resolution is “not good enough,” considering the speed at which the impact of climate change is moving at.

Following this, a press release from the VP Finance and Operations Portfolio explained that the endowments are invested indirectly by the Investment Management Trust (IMANT) in over 30 managed funds, explaining that “the matter is not simple to address.”

“IMANT staff have worked days and nights and weekends … to develop, and begin to execute an action plan to respond to the Board’s decisions,” the press release wrote.

UBC has committed to divest its endowment by 2030 as part of its Climate Emergency Response.

“Focusing on divestment is not a replacement for advocating for more effective policies. We support those as well, and have run campaigns on them,” wrote Climate Justice UBC in 2020.

Student advocates continue to request transparency from IMANT and the administration on its fossil fuel holdings.

Recent calls for divestment

In 2017, a student referendum to force the AMS to boycott products and divest from companies that “support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians” narrowly failed. 5 years later, a coalition of 20 student groups succeeded in getting AMS Council to push UBC to divest from 9 companies complicit in human rights violations in Palestine.

Though a motion to discuss this referendum was never formally brought forward to the BoG, former President Santa Ono and the BoG said they would not support the motion. Ono said that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement interfered with “constructive and respectful debate” by attacking individual identities.

Student groups were quick to respond.

“We do not accept the notion that divesting from companies complicit in apartheid, which include weapons manufacturers among others, is ‘controversial,’” wrote student group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights in a statement to The Ubyssey after the announcement in spring 2022.

“It is a simple, principled stance and the right thing to do.”

A movement criticizing UBC’s 19 million dollar investment in companies connected to the Uyghur genocide is also emerging, although student advocacy on this particular issue remains limited.

Across issues and eras, UBC’s response has always been glacial – and always followed years of student activists.

These movements demonstrate that divestment is far more than an economic procedure. It is a proxy for public debates and a desire for accountability.

“I’ve been talking about divesting for most of my life,” Roosa said. “It only becomes effective when everybody does it. The problem is, not everybody does.”