In 2013, Fossil Fuel UW started as a small group of students with a mission to get the University of Waterloo to divest (opposite of investment) student endowment funds from fossil fuel companies.
By November 2015, they had coordinated a vote through the Waterloo Environment Student’s Endowment Fund (WESEF) to divest from fossil fuel companies. WESEF voted unanimously (with the exception of one abstention) to divest their funds. However, as UW manages all endowment funds from all faculties together, along with pension funds, WESEF funds could not be divested from fossil fuels.
In the winter 2016, 68 professors from every faculty wrote an open letter to the Board of Governors, stating that they support fossil fuel divestment.
UW Fossil Free took their results from the WESEF vote along with this letter to the Board of Governors and asked them to divest from fossil fuels. Their response was not to divest, but to create an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Committee that has a Responsible Investment Working Group to broadly consult the university public. This action was also in response to the Province of Ontario making it a requirement for institutions to have an ESG statement, whereby they explain their official stance towards environmental, social, and governance aspects of investment.
The Working Group had their first meeting in May 2017. Although they considered extending the committee process to February 2018, they recently informed Fossil Free UW that are not planning on extending their timeline, and will submit its final report to the Board of Governors on Oct. 31.
According to Élisabeth Bruins, a third year International Development Student and current co-chair of Fossil Free UW, the consultation that the working committee was supposed to partake with endowment stakeholders has been limited. ““They are not planning on doing any more consultation – from what we heard, they think putting a call for comments on the Daily Bulletin on the UWaterloo website…is sufficient consultation…[T]hey didn’t even try emailing the call for comments to students.”
Bruins stated that the Working Group should be consulting with anyone that has a stake in university investments, which includes undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni, and staff.
“[Fossil Free UW is] making sure [the Responsible Investment Working Group]…do [not]…ignore our initial request for divestment, but actually use this committee to do it, because that’s partly why this committee exists in the first place,” she said.
Their mission is twofold. “We want to engage the students and we want to engage the working group. So we are going to raise awareness and make sure the working group hears us out,” stated Bruins.
Bruins thinks that this activism is very important for a number of reasons. First being that the endowment funds comes from students tuition, and thus students should have a say in how it is invested.
Furthermore, having institutions such as universities and religious institutions divest from companies is very symbolic, as they have much influence on a great number of people.
Finally, Bruins emphasized the empowerment that campaigning for divestment brings. “This movement in particular helps us as students and citizens reclaim our political voice…it’s not about you and I doing small changes in our lives…the divestment movement is something that is collaborative, it is something that we do as a group, and doesn’t put the blame on individuals it’s about changing the system, and that’s empowering because it allows us to change institutions and political structures.”
If students are interested in getting involved, Fossil Free UW has meetings every few weeks to organize possible consultation events and communication with the committee. Further, Bruins encourages all students to be involved even if they cannot make it to the meetings. “Sign up for our newsletters, check out our website, keep an eye out for any events, [and] be vocal about their desire for a sustainable future.”
Students can send comments regarding divestment directly to the Responsible Investment Working Group by emailing the secretary Mike Grivicic, which can be found at https://uwaterloo.ca/secretariat/news/responsible-investing-working-group.