Organizing on campus

Laval makes history with fossil fuel divestment: How did they do it?

A campus activist shares lessons from a winning campaign
ULaval Sans Fossiles

On Feb. 15, Laval became the first university in Canada to commit to divest all of its endowment funds from fossil fuels. Since the announcement, ULaval sans fossiles, the student group formed four months ago to pressure the administration to divest, has received many messages asking one simple question: How did we make it happen?

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Our campaign probably started like many other student-led divestment efforts around the globe. I was in the shower, thinking about our government’s inaction on climate change and the chaos my nephews and nieces would grow up in. I realized that instead of worrying for my loved-ones’ future, I could actually do something that would help discredit and hurt fossil fuel companies.

I had heard of the student divestment movement, which is particularly active on English-speaking campuses in Canada, and I wondered if anyone at my university had thought to start a campaign like that. It seemed that no one had, so I just started one myself.

Our campaign plan was very similar to most student divestment campaigns. We spent countless hours doing research, building a strong argument, finding a name and a logo, creating a website, printing stickers, making buttons, compiling a media contact list, creating and feeding a Facebook page, connecting with other student campaigns in Quebec, sending press releases, redecorating the campus with posters and stickers, writing open letters, holding strategic meetings, signing petitions, and so on.

We also made sure we had students on board early in the campaign. We approached both the undergraduate student association and the graduate association and they gave us their support. Even in a short period of time, we were very visible and able to build momentum on campus. Students could see the incoherence of Laval University, which touts its commitment to sustainable development, having investments in fossil fuels.

As so-called leftist students, we were not used to winning.

Early in the campaign, we asked the David Suzuki Foundation’s director general in Quebec, Karel Mayrand, to contact the university’s administration on our behalf. A Laval alumnus, he had also previously given back his degree from McGill University because of their refusal to divest.

Mayrand was able to organize a meeting with the number two of Laval University, Mr. Éric Bauce, executive vice rector in charge of sustainable development. We arrived well prepared, with clear demands and ready to negotiate. After two hours of discussions, Bauce put his fist on the table and said that, instead of first seeing if divesting was possible before committing, the university should make the commitment first and then find a way to achieve their goal.

The case was closed. We had won.

We left the meeting in shock, not sure that they would really do what we had agreed on. As so-called leftist students, we were not used to winning.

The initial contact with the administration was a success, mostly because the person in charge of the matter really saw the benefits of divesting from fossil fuels environmentally, economically, and, most of all, for Laval University’s image. They saw our proposition as an opportunity to become real leaders, and that is why they acted so early on in our campaign. They saw the value in full divestment and chose not to take half measures like other Canadian universities have.

Essentially, the difference between our campaign and other campaigns is an administration that saw the leadership potential of this commitment. We are certain that this will be the first commitment of many to come from universities across the country. Unfortunately it’s no longer possible to pressure your administration by baiting them with the possibility of becoming the first university in Canada to divest, but they certainly won’t want to be the last. And you can work with that.

There is no French secret ingredient to our victory.

As for us, we will remain active on campus and already have a plan for the upcoming months: keep a watchful eye on the administration, participate in the advisory committee, talk to the four unions on campus about how they could divest their pension funds, and present a conference on the evils of fossil fuel companies.

We are aware that our administration will likely get push back from the fossil fuel industry and people within the university, so our challenge as an organizing team is to keep them accountable to the commitments they have made.

There is no French secret ingredient to our victory. I don’t presume to know exactly what should be done or how you should organize your campaign. The only thing I know is that if our victory can motivate other divestment activists, or students who want to start a new campaign, I will feel as if this crazy idea I had in my shower four months ago really did change something.

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