With increasing evidence of the impending climate crisis, there is a growing need in Canada to extricate from the fossil fuel industry. No one knows this more than Tina Oh. Including her activism at the 2016 COP 22 UN climate conference in Marrakech, Oh has been a climate justice organizer for many years. She describes herself as a first-generation Korean immigrant from a working-class family. After spending most of her childhood in Edmonton, Alberta, she moved to the Maritimes for schooling. Oh completed a Bachelors degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville and is currently a graduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax researching displacement and dispossession as a result of climate change, migration, and settler-colonialism.
While at Mount Allison, Oh was one of the main organizers of the Divest Mount Allison campaign, which like other university divestment campaigns advocates for Mount Allison University to divest its monies from the fossil fuel industry.
“Divestment is nothing new,” says Oh. In fact, many divestment campaigns have pressured universities to distance themselves from certain investments for political and ethical reasons. “From apartheid South Africa and even to tobacco, there’s been divestment campaigns on campuses.”
Mount Allison University has the largest endowment fund per capita of any university in Canada, seven percent of which is invested in fossil fuels. While the impact on Mount Allison’s finances would be minimal, the systemic impact of the largest university endowment fund going fossil free would be momentous, says Oh.
The divestment campaign at Mount Allison was inspired by the one at Unity College in Maine in 2013, from which the fossil fuel divestment movement “spread like wildfire” according to Oh. Divest Mount Allison demanded the university divest from the top 500 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies. A similar campaign began at the University of New Brunswick.
Oh says the campaign began with a “pleasant” approach, trying to foster a positive attitude towards divestment and soliciting support from students and faculty.
“The faculty was very supportive, their association passed a motion supporting divestment,” says Oh. “The student union took three votes. It failed narrowly the first few times but then passed unanimously.”
Oh says the student union was hesitant primarily because the university administration was engaging in fear-mongering. “They were telling students that scholarships and bursaries were on the line so of course the student union executive didn’t want to appear to be in favour of that.”
However, Divest Mount Allison consulted about Mount Allison’s financial situation by Genus capital, a BC-based firm specializing in helping organizations divest. After consultations, it was determined that divestment would not significantly affect Mount Allison’s ability to provide scholarships and bursaries to its students.
The university also signed a document created by the administration at the University of British Colombia which presented a number of arguments against divestment. One was that divestment violated trust laws, a claim Divest Mount Allison disputed.
“Universities break laws all the time,” Oh says, adding that “thousands of teaching contracts are illegally violated annually in this country and universities don’t seem to care about the law then. What laws the university is choosing to respect and which they are not is a political statement.”
“Divestment is a political statement,” continues Oh. “It’s saying to fossil fuel companies: We are removing your social licence, because you are killing the planet.”
As the university refused to budge, the Divest Mount Allison collective started to take more confrontational actions, such as die-ins in administrative meetings and setting up a camp outside the university president’s office.
“The administration became increasingly resistant, and we had to ask why it’s so hard to divest in this country,” says Oh. “It’s because we live in a country built on resource extraction, and we give them a massive social license to do what they want, and they buy our consent. A lot of money for new buildings at Mount Allison came from fossil fuels.”
Oh says that Divest Mount Allison submitted several information requests about the university’s fossil fuel connections, but “they weren’t very forthcoming. They were delayed, delivered haphazardly, and a lot of them were hard to understand in a very deliberate way.”
Oh says that divestment is an important part of increasing democracy and transparency in university governance, “it’s connected to the corporatization of the university and to the increasing in precarious work on campus — all these struggles are connected.”
While protests became more public and dramatic, the collective also continued to use research and meetings to advance their goals. Through their research, they found increasingly that the numbers were on their side.
“The university vice-president admitted to us that if we had divested before the oil crash, the university would be in a better financial situation, not worse,” says Oh in reference to the 2014 fall in oil prices which damaged many investments in fossil fuels. Another oil crash in 2008 also damaged the university’s investments.
According to the campaign Go Fossil Free, universities which have made commitments to divestment in Canada include Laval University, University of Ottawa, and Université du Quebec à Montreal. Oh feels that more university divestment victories will create a domino effect. “Once one public university does it, it paves the way for others.”
While Oh has graduated and left Mount Allison, she continues to advocate divestment and other policy transformations to combat climate change. She was a youth delegate at the COP 24 UN climate conference in Poland and organized the Powershift youth conference in Ottawa.
Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project summer institute.