Fondation de l’UQAM quietly divests from fossil fuels

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While in the past the Fondation de l’UQAM excluded the tobacco and weapon industries from their financial portfolio, the time has come for fossil fuels to be disqualified from their investment strategy on ethical grounds. As they are morally incompatible with the fight against climate change and go against the institution’s educational mission, fossil fuel companies are now blacklisted from their investment policy. This decision, adopted by the Fondation de l’UQAM’s administrative council on November 30th, 2017, led to the sale of all stocks invested in the fossil fuel industry. Further, it is formally stated that the foundation’s capital can never be invested in the sector in the future. Pierre Bélanger, Executive Director of the Fondation de l’UQAM, accepted to meet with us in his office to share his organization’s divestment experience. Beginning in 2017 and completed in 2018, the foundation’s divestment from fossil fuels didn’t run into any hurdles. To minimize the potential risks of such a procedure, it was decided that they should embark on a progressive divestment, following the same strategy as Université Laval, the first and only Canadian university to have officially committed to selling all of their fossil fuel shares[1].

We chose a progressive divestment to avoid penalizing ourselves, explains Mr.Bélanger. We are the guardians of the investments of the foundation’s donors. We thus have an obligation to generate revenues, and we didn’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by selling our shares from one day to the next, no matter the price. It just so happened that good opportunities arose and we were able to be rid of them all in little time,” [2]

He even admits that no longer being invested in fossil fuels ended up being very lucrative in January of 2019, when the stock market was declining. The foundation’s Placement Committee meets with its investment manager several times a year to keep tabs on the state of their investments. They were told that they had been largely shielded during the recent period of market turbulence since they were no longer invested in fossil fuels. Basically, from a strictly financial point of view, divesting has turned out to be an advantageous decision as of yet. «I believe that, at the moment, they [ fossil fuels] are not sound investments even for someone with no political inclinations in this regard [3]”, adds Mr. Bélanger. We must mention the fact that the Fondation de l’UQAM has little capital, compared to other university foundations. We are talking about 40 million in capital, against approximately 340 million and over 1.5 billion in endowments for Université de Montréal and McGill University respectively. Even if Pierre Bélanger admits that the smaller size of their portfolio facilitated the divestment process, it is still important to highlight the gesture, which bears witness to a recognition of the climate emergency and taking on responsibility in the matter. It is also a gesture that can be appreciated in comparison to other universities, often better endowed, who continue to profit from an industrial sector that is hostile towards the clean energy transition and ‘greening’ of society that is bolstered by a growing portion of the scientific community.

The Foundation’s director recognizes that divestment represents both an ethical and political position in today’s context; “It is a good message to send, and as educational institutions, we must send out such messages[4]”. This being said, it is a shame that the foundation went through the divestment process without officially informing the UQAM community or the public, when the gesture is an honourable one. In response, Pierre Bélanger points to the fact that the Fondation de l’UQAM is not subject to the Loi sur l’accès à l’information, unlike public organizations, and are thus in no obligation to make their investment policy, or any modifications they bring to it, public. All in all, it is still a gesture that deserves to be placed in the spotlight and be known by other actors involved in climate change. For example, at UQAM, there is the Comité institutionnel d’application de la politique en matière d’environnement (CIME), whose mission is to inform the Régime de retraite de l’ Université du Québec (RRUQ) contributors of the importance of divesting from the fossil fuel sector[5]. The fact that the foundation embarked on this path represents strong support for the committee’s mobilization efforts.

Outside of UQAM’s walls, we must mention that there are many campaigns in Quebec, led by students, towards university representatives concerning divesting university funds from the extractivist economy[6]. Always on the hunt for support, the fact that the Fondation de l’UQAM has chosen to retract their portfolio from the hydrocarbons industry is far from being trivial in the eyes of these campaigns. To get investment portfolio management administrators, far from being interested in adopting the divestment route, to see reason, it is in their advantage to show how the movement, for its part, is making progress with other institutional investors in Quebec’s university sector.

Finally, in solidarity with those who work towards the advancement of climate justice, anonymous divestors from all countries, show yourselves!

Translation by Katherine Mac Donald

This article’s theme fits into PhiLab’s research axis on the variety of practices stemming from “socially-responsible finance” in the philanthropic sector. It also forms part of a broader research project that is specifically dedicated to the development of the fossil fuel divestment movement in Quebec’s universities. It is the first of a series of articles that will appear periodically up to September 2019.