No Indigenization without divestment

What Indigenization looks like at the University of Winnipeg

I remember sitting in my inaugural meeting as the first Indigenous woman president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) almost a year ago, listening to discussions on Indigenization – a term that has never sat well with me. As an Indigenous woman, I study and work every day at a university that brands itself as a leader of Indigenization while continuing to profit off Indigenous lands. 

We claim we are “Indigenizing” and “decolonizing,” while students attend classes at the Richardson College for the Environment and Science Complex – a building named after the Richardson Foundation. The Richardson Foundation is a charitable wing of James Richardson & Sons Ltd., which owns the largest oil company in Manitoba, Tundra Oil and Gas. 

Some of the University of Winnipeg Foundation’s  largest investments are in the oil and gas sector. These investors are pushing for projects, such as the Line 3 pipeline replacement, that threaten the health and environmental well-being of Indigenous peoples. Ironically, the returns from these investments are used to fund awards, bursaries and programs for Indigenous students. 

To fully understand the importance of divesting from fossil fuels, we need to recognize that it is interconnected with the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute. Both issues are about upholding Indigenous rights. In Wet’suwet’en territory, the hereditary chiefs did not consent to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. There have been raids by militarized police forcibly removing land defenders, who say that the Coastal GasLink project specifically poses a risk to the land, the water and their way of life. 

When Canada signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which outlines the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” for Indigenous peoples, it agreed that it was its “duty to consult” Indigenous people before starting projects that encroach on their rights. 

In February, when I had the opportunity to speak to members of Parliament and senators in Ottawa about actions on climate change, the Wet’suwet’en crisis and UNDRIP, I was repeatedly told that they were enforcing the “rule of law.” The meetings were hostile, and I felt frustrated. This frustration fueled my motivation to continue working on divestment at the University of Winnipeg (U of W). 

I have spent my term as UWSA president trying to revitalize the divestment campaign at the U of W that began in 2015. In order to get the university to divest from the fossil fuel industry, and to honour and carry on the work of Indigenous peoples who have worked on it before me, divestment needed to be an Indigenous-led initiative. 

The greatest success this year has been mobilizing students and creating a movement again. Students care about divestment and are getting more involved. I am hopeful this campaign is only going to gain more momentum. Honouring Indigenous rights at the U of W through divestment is one step toward honouring Indigenous rights in Canada. 

Indigenous leaders are urging provincial and federal governments to shut down construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a pandemic, and while the price of oil is at its all-time low, the pipeline is still being built. The U of W is complicit by choosing to continue investing in the fossil fuel industry. 

The U of W needs to invest in our students’ futures, especially in times like these. The destruction of land for the creation of a pipeline impacts us all. We need to move toward clean energy by moving the University of Winnipeg Foundation’s investments away from fossil fuels and into sustainable fields. We cannot keep relying on financial returns from the expansion of fossil fuels – returns that are now as fragile and uncertain as our economy. 

As I reach the end of my term, I feel disappointed that the University of Winnipeg Foundation has not yet committed to divesting from fossil fuels. For six years, students, faculty and alumni have asked for divestment. The U of W has responded to the divestment movement by arguing that it did not want to sacrifice its financial gains by pulling out of the fossil fuel sector. Universities like Concordia University and the University of British Columbia have proved that divestment is not a pipe dream, but a strategy that can be implemented without adversely affecting financial returns.

The Foundation’s current Responsible Investments Policy does not outline specific steps for divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, it considers divestment as an option that is more “symbolic than effective.”  As we navigate a climate crisis, we need to implement specific and measurable goals that will lead to reducing the load of the Foundation’s fossil fuel holdings.

The only commitment the university has made this year was agreeing to track their investments and provide accurate numbers on how much is invested in the oil and gas industries. I am calling on the U of W to do more than just tracking. We need policy changes and an announcement of a timeline for divestment by the U of W and the University of Winnipeg Foundation. As an Indigenous student, it makes me uncomfortable knowing my university education comes with the cost of extraction of my ancestral lands. If our strategic direction is “Indigenization,” we should be upholding Indigenous rights. 

Meagan Malcolm is the outgoing UWSA president. She is currently studying criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. After her term ends at the UWSA, she will be joining the Canadian Federation of Students as the national executive for Circle of First Nations, Metis and Inuit. In her spare time, you can find her researching the next destination on her travel bucket list and shopping for beaded earrings online. 

Published in Volume 74, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 1, 2020)

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