THUNDER BAY – Lakehead University has committed to divest from fossil fuel companies by 2023, becoming one of the first universities in Canada to do so.
Students and faculty at the school had campaigned since at least 2014 for the institution to drop its investments in oil, gas, and coal to demonstrate leadership on climate change.
The institution’s Board of Governors officially voted to take the step on Thursday, making Lakehead the sixth Canadian university to commit to some form of fossil fuel divestment (others include Concordia, Guelph, and UBC).
Organizers with Fossil Free Lakehead, the student group that spearheaded the divestment campaign, hoped the victory would contribute to a broader societal shift toward clean energy.
“There is a future without fossil fuels, that’s the message we’re trying to push,” said student and FFL member Shadiya Aidid. “Getting universities to see it’s not a viable industry to be involved in, that influences other schools, pension plans, banks, and other groups that have political power.”
The group had led rallies and letter-writing campaigns on campus in recent years, as well as presenting their case to the university’s Board of Governors on several occasions.
Board of Governors chair Angela Maltese said she was “thrilled” with the decision and praised students for leading the way on the issue. However, she maintained the decision was made on its own merits, not due to pressure from the campaign.
“Certainly it was important to hear their voice, but that alone was not the reason we made the decision,” she said. “The reason we made the decision is that Lakehead aspires to be a leader when it comes to sustainability, and clearly climate change is an important part of that.”
Just over two per cent of Lakehead’s portfolio is invested in fossil fuel companies, the university said Friday. The school reported around $128 million in long-term investments and a nearly $59 million endowment in its 2019 report to the community.
Extricating its portfolio from fossil fuels won't be a simple process, Maltese said, explaining the 2023 target for full divestment set by the board.
Interest from the school’s endowment also supports student scholarships and awards, she said, underlining the importance of a careful process.
“It’s very complex, and that’s why we’re going to take our time doing it,” she said. “We have to do it in a way that’s consistent with our fiduciary and legal responsibility. So this isn’t going to happen overnight, but we’re definitely committed to it.”
According to Aidid, the university’s fossil fuel investments aren’t paying off, in any case. An analysis by Fossil Free Lakehead found the university’s fossil fuel stocks would have significantly underperformed the rest of its portfolio in recent years, she said.
While that underperformance was part of the case the group presented to university leaders, Aidid said it shouldn’t form the basis for divestment.
“It’s a strong argument, but [what happens] if fossil fuels become profitable?” she asked. “If that’s the principle that a group is divesting on, I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
“I think a stronger argument, and the one we believe in, isn’t about the money. We got involved because of the long-term effects this industry has on the world, on communities that are already feeling the brunt of climate change.”
Those concerns also go beyond the climate, she pointed out, to the fossil fuel industry’s history of funding misinformation on climate change and its social impact.
“The industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of colonial violence,” she said. “There’s a long history of companies pushing Indigenous people off their lands [and] polluting in racialized communities.”
Aidid believes the university’s decision to divest now, years after the issue was first raised, demonstrates the growing power of the climate movement, which she saw reflected in the issue’s prominence in the 2019 federal election and the global spread of Fridays for Future actions.
Students with Fossil Free Lakehead took a moment to celebrate, albeit over Zoom, after learning the news Thursday.
“I think we all really believed in our message and that we would win eventually,” said Aidid. “But [when] it happened, all of us were a bit speechless.”
Still, she said, their work isn't over. Fossil Free Lakehead will work with school leaders to understand the details of the university’s divestment plans and hold it accountable in the coming years, Aidid said, while members will continue pressing forward on other climate issues.