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Divesting from colonialism: a call for McGill University to respect Wet’suwet’en self-determination

Why McGill must divest from TC Energy

EnvironmentIndigenous PoliticsSocial Movements

A Wet’suwet’en activist. Photo by Michael Toledano.

On March 7, student activists with Divest McGill entered McGill University’s McCall MacBain Arts Building. Giving a temporary make-over to the overarching colonial aesthetic of the building, they hung hand painted banners in the lobby reading “Solidarity Means Divestment.” Their prime target? Fossil fuel corporations like TC Energy, which is building the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline on unceded Indigenous land in British Columbia. They set up tents with the intention of occupying the space until their demands were met: that McGill divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

This first occupation was called off on March 18 when one participant tested positive for COVID-19. As of this writing, students are holding a second occupation in Burnside Hall on campus. For Divest McGill, cutting off fossil fuel companies is about taking action to mitigate climate change, but it is also about decolonization. As one of their pamphlets states: “We are occupying McGill to create a festive, autonomous space for learning. A space which belongs to all rather than to the corporate elite. At present, McGill University, as controlled by the Board of Governors, serves capitalist, white supremacist, settler-colonial and imperialist structures of power.”

This direct action and other recent activism in and beyond the campus is a response to a hidden bloody history and geography of violence in which McGill University has been and remains complicit. When the university commemorated its bicentennial last year, there was little in the way of reckoning with this unfinished past. The discourse around the celebrations omitted to mention that the university was founded with land and money obtained by profiting from the transatlantic slave trade and settler colonialism.

The oft-repeated origin story about McGill University is that the institution owes its founding to the generosity of James McGill, who bequeathed £10,000 (in British colonial currency) along with the forty-six acre Burnside Place for a college in his name. That narrative ignores that James McGill’s wealth was ultimately derived from transatlantic enslavement and settler colonialism. Initially involved in the fur trade in Montréal, McGill then became a merchant of goods produced in the colonial British West Indies. More precisely, he accumulated wealth from the trade in goods produced on slave plantations in the Caribbean. He had Indigenous and Black slaves working in his house. Further, there is physical evidence showing that the land McGill University stands on was previously inhabited by Haudenosaunee peoples.

Today, McGill University supports colonialism by investing in companies that generate their wealth from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Specifically, it has holdings in TC Energy, which is building the CGL pipeline on the unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en nation. Taking stock of the last 200 years means more than confessing one’s past wrongs; it involves dismantling ongoing colonial relationships, supporting the self-determination of Indigenous peoples, and paying reparations to enable racial, social, and environmental justice. It is in this spirit that climate justice activists in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal are calling on McGill University to divest from TC Energy.

This past February marked the second year anniversary of the RCMP’s invasion of the unceded Unist’ot’en territory of the Wet’suwet’en nation, during which Freda Huson (Chief Howilhkat), Brenda Michell (Chief Geltiy), Dr. Karla Tait, and other key Indigenous land defenders were forcibly removed from their land. The way of life and relationship to the land of the Wet’suwet’en represent an obstacle to TC Energy’s plans to build the CGL pipeline through their yintah, their traditional territory. The company obtained an injunction from the BC Supreme Court to prevent the obstruction of work on the pipeline. In response to RCMP repression, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from coast-to-coast organized direct actions that disrupted capital flows across Canada.

Two key strategies informed the resistance to the CGL pipeline construction from January to March of 2020. First, the Wet’suwet’en enacted nationhood through political organization rooted in traditional governance structures, setting up checkpoints to prevent construction workers from gaining access to Wet’suwet’en land, and through honouring Wet’suwet’en laws and treaties. Second, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples took action, the aim of which is summed up in digital shorthand by the social media handle #ShutDownCanada. For example, the Mohawks of Kahnawake and Tyendinaga mounted a blockade over railway tracks, thus preventing trains from operating; non-Indigenous activists in Saint-Lambert and Pointe-Saint-Charles similarly set up train blockades; protestors prevented access to the Vancouver port, and Indigenous and non-native youth occupied the office of then Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett.

The late Secwepemc leader Arthur Manuel described direct action as a mechanism for enforcing Indigenous territorial claims in the face of settler colonialism: “The ongoing and relentless land conflicts—expressed in sit-ins, demonstrations, blockades and other ways of asserting ownership—[…] show that Indigenous peoples in Canada refuse to accept that the Constitution Acts of 1867 or 1982 gave a moral or, in the international sense, a legal right to Canada and its provinces to confiscate and destroy our land.”

In the current context of the struggle against the CGL project, these combined actions succeeded in forcing the Government of Canada, which had first responded with violent repression, to change course and enter negotiations with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

The struggle of the Wet’suwet’en gained international attention, making headlines until early March 2020. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the declaration of a public health emergency put an end to the mobilizations pressuring the government to negotiate. Consequently, the construction of the CGL pipeline continues apace. Now, with shifts in social dynamics around the pandemic, it is urgent to resume mobilizing opposition to the pipeline before the work is completed. It is pressing to find ways to collectively address the ongoing crisis of dispossession that is taking place in Wet’suwet’en territory. Action is not only symbolic; it can have concrete effects for generations to come. One such action that warrants support is the campaign for divestment from the CGL pipeline.

Wet’suwet’en matriarchs. Photo by Michael Toledano.

Divestment as a mechanism for defunding colonialism

The financial basis of the CGL pipeline is investments in companies that own and operate the project. The pipeline’s principal investor is TC Energy, whose shareholders include universities across Canada—like McGill and Mount Allison University—as part of their endowment funds. Endowment funds are assets a university holds to ensure the functioning of the institution in perpetuity. The claim is made that such investments are politically neutral and provide stability when other income streams could be variable due, for instance, to fluctuations in student enrolment and tuition, the contingencies of national and global economic conditions, or the uncertainty of government funding. Ethical questions need to be raised, however: where do these assets come from? And where is this capital being invested? As McGill University celebrates its bicentennial, these concerns are especially pertinent.

Divest McGill campaign poster by Chris Robertson

Speaking on McGill’s radio station, CKUT, climate justice activist and Divest McGill organizer Alexia Wildhaber-Riley articulated the critical importance of student activist demands that McGill cut ties to colonial violence in Canada by purging their endowment funds of politically dubious investments: “In so-called Canada, settler colonialism is what is driving both the climate crisis and what is driving systemic violations of Indigenous rights. McGill is involved in this. By McGill investing in TC Energy, McGill is investing in the violation of Indigenous sovereignty.”

To date, the University appears unmoved. When Divest McGill sent a report making the argument for divestment in 2016, the administration responded: “The beneficial impact of fossil fuel companies offsets or outweighs injurious impact at this time.”

However, 10 Canadian universities have so far announced full or partial divestment. These decisions were not made in a vacuum but in response to student activism. Students across the world began demanding that universities divest from fossil fuel corporations as part of climate action as early as 2012. Bill McKibben’s 2013 article in Rolling Stone, “The Case for Fossil-Fuel Divestment,” gave expression to this emerging political demand on campuses. In that article, McKibben found inspiration in the history of student activism across North America for university divestment from apartheid South Africa although he did not invoke anti-colonialism in framing the contemporary call for fossil fuel divestment. Many calls for divestment continue to elide Indigenous self-determination. Various manifestations of Indigenous resurgence—Idle No More, #NoDAPL, and now the Wet’suwet’en struggle—have inspired student activists to deepen divestment politics by adopting anti-colonial frameworks.

In the wake of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), there has been a lot of discussion in universities about what role they can play in the process of reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous people. McGill also claims to be addressing anti-Black racism on campus. Its efforts include a history project designed to examine McGill’s past involvement in transatlantic slavery. So McGill has begun to acknowledge its Black and Indigenous history and geography, but it’s important to recognize that McGill’s complicity in colonialism is ongoing and that slavery has an afterlife. The university’s endowment fund is currently being invested in projects that perpetuate the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and contribute to climate change. McGill University’s TRC calls to action and the Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism are an important first step forward. But the Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty Caucus sees the latter action plan as only the beginning of the much needed work of “reparative justice.” Land reparations to the Haudenosaunee and compensation to the Black community in Montréal would be welcome initiatives.

Ehab Lotayef speaking at a rally against McGill investments in TC Energy. Photo by Amru Salahuddien.

Various communities are questioning and protesting McGill University’s involvement in ongoing colonialism. Kanien’kehá:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) are demanding that any McGill University project planned for the old Royal Victoria Hospital site must obtain the authorization of traditional caretakers. The Mohawk Mothers claim that there are unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the site from experiments conducted by Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron in the 1950s and 60s. One form of reparative justice would involve recognizing the authority of Kanien’kehá:ka in these lands. Reparative justice also entails defunding colonialism, and that includes divesting McGill of its equity in TC Energy, which is valued at $3,467,323 as of December 31, 2021. The call for divestment is not just about reducing carbon emissions, it is also about supporting Wet’suwet’en self-determination.

Wet’suwet’en activist Marlene Hale spoke to the importance of McGill withdrawing its support for TC Energy during a rally organized by Divest McGill and the Indigenous Student Alliance in December 2021. “[TC Energy] is working to destroy our homeland, which is beautiful and pristine, you can still drink the water from the ground,” she said. “Ever since TC Energy arrived on our territory they have brought only pain, suffering and violence. They must go, now, and McGill must stop supporting them, now.”

Construction of the CGL pipeline is being enabled by the RCMP presence in Wet’suwet’en territory which allows Coastal GasLink to operate worksites along the pipeline’s route—that in addition to government offices that refuse to negotiate in good faith with hereditary chiefs and university endowment fund holdings in TC Energy. These have all become sites of resistance to the pipeline and occasions for affirming Wet’suwet’en nationhood and territory. The multiple locations of investment are pillars of this pipeline project, but they are also starting points for defunding colonialism. McGill University’s bicentennial is an opportunity for the institution to begin to break from its 200 year history of complicity in settler colonialism.

Stefan Spirodon Christoff is a media maker, community activist and artist living in Montréal. Stefan hosts Free City Radio, broadcasting weekly on CKUT 90.3fm and CJLO 1690am and shared globally as a podcast. Stefan coordinates Musicians for Palestine and makes music with many people globally, including Rêves sonores, Sam Shalabi, Lori Goldston and Anarchist Mountains. Stefan is on the board of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Côte-Des-Neiges and works with Cinema Politica Network. He is currently also a history student at Concordia University.

Kasim Tirmizey is a teacher currently based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. He researches and writes about the politics of food and land. He has published with Jamhoor, Tanqeed, Socialist Project, Race & Class, and Socialist Studies.


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