A student campaign has launched to pressure Thompson Rivers University to divest from its oil and gas holdings and sever its relationships with energy and resource extraction companies like Kinder Morgan and KGHM Ajax Inc.
In the campaign’s opening forum, approximately 45 students met in the Irving K. Barber Centre to hear from event organizers Sachin Sundhu, Tristan Muhr and Kevin Pankewich, and from faculty members Michael Mehta and Cynthia Ross Friedman.
Mehta said the goal of the campaign was for students to “collectively send a signal” to university administration and governance that sustainability has to be made a much higher priority.
“This is part of a social change agenda, and divestment is the biggest signal any individual or organization can give to focus attention on a future that we can dream about rather than fear,” Mehta said in his address.
In 2015, the university took over an endowment fund previously held by the TRU Foundation, and the university’s current energy holdings now total 2.9 per cent invested in energy-related securities, up from 2 per cent of its total investments in 2015, according to TRU’s VP Admin & Finance Matt Milovick.
In reference to an earlier 2015 report in The Omega that cited the university’s energy holdings as approximately one per cent of its total holdings, Ross Friedman said “Get rid of them.”
“Perhaps we can start with that. Symbolic or not symbolic, we have to try to make this really happen,” she said at the forum.
Beyond financial divestment, there were also calls to reject money from companies like Kinder Morgan and KGHM Ajax Inc., both of which have pledged money or otherwise partnered with the university.
On April 7, 2015, TRU accepted a memorandum of understanding with Kinder Morgan that stated the company would provide $500,000 for student awards over a period of 20 years to the university if its proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project was approved.
Earlier this year in January, the university announced that it would be teaming up with KGHM Ajax to create a research project on reclamation science. In that instance, the university highlighted its conflict of interest policy and Lauchlan Fraser, the researcher involved, made it clear that there would be transparency and that academic freedom would be maintained.
In the past, Milovick has made it clear that TRU isn’t interested in divestment, but it is interested in what it calls a responsible investment policy. In February, the TRU Board of Governors approved a change to the university’s investment policy that aligned it with the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment.
“By becoming signatories to the UNPRI, this is not a divestment policy or strategy but a means by which TRU will minimize the risk that our investments are in companies that have egregious social, ethical or governance practices,” Milovick said.
At the forum, Ross Friedman commented on the university’s approach.
“I really believe that socially responsible investment (SRI) has to be coupled with divestment. We can’t just say we’re going to do SRI, it’s not enough. I really believe that we have to divest from more than bonds and portfolios to keep up a high level of academic credibility,” she said.
“TRU will say they’re not taking a side, but if you’re going to accept money you’re essentially taking a side,” organizer Sachin Sundhu said.
Sundhu, along with co-campaigners Tristan Muhr and Kevin Pankewich who are all members of the TRUSU Socialist Club, are looking to inform students on the matter and start with campaign action in September.
“We’re not in for an easy task. We don’t see it being a one month campaign with 100 students that changes everything. We realize it’s a tough process,” Sundhu said. “We don’t know what direction it’ll go, but I know that if we put enough pressure, if we can mobilize students to come together, that we can send a message to the administration that the students don’t want companies like Kinder Morgan and Ajax and their influence on campus.”
When asked how they would rally students towards a political goal on a campus that hasn’t been particularly politically active in the past, campaigners said that support from TRUSU and bringing information to students will be important factors.
“It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know. TRU has a very consumer-like culture, where you come, hang out, pay your tuition, do your classes and then get out. People are very rarely engaged with the institution. Once you inform them, they’re interested,” Muhr said.
With the recent election of seven members from the Student Advocacy Coalition slate, which mentioned divestment in its campaign platform, that support may come. Muhr is hopeful that TRUSU will support their campaign.