On Oct. 16, the University of Victoria Students’ Society’s (UVSS) held their Annual General Meeting (AGM). Preliminary figures indicate that over 220 people attended, well over the 108 required to meet quorum, in large part thanks to the interest surrounding fossil fuel divestment.
Divest UVic member Peter Gibbs was confident that students would vote for a referendum on the issue, but also said he was anxious that the meeting would not meet quorum.
“UVSS AGMs generally fail to meet quorum, so we were nervous ahead of time, but we were really blown away by the level of support,” he said.
During the first part of the meeting, the attendees voted unanimously with almost no debate to create a new position for an International Student Representative on the students’ society board. The representative will be voted on by the 3 000 international students at UVic, defined as non-Canadian residents, and their role will be similar to that of a director-at-large.
A second resolution streamlined and clarified the roles of certain executive directors, such as adding media relations to the role of Director of External Relations, and requiring the Chairperson to “liaise with legal counsel and the General Manager on legal matters affecting the Society”. Minutes for UVSS meetings will also be moved from paper copies on notice boards to the UVSS website. Meeting chair and former UVSS chairperson James Coccola joked that he used to be excited to post minutes on the bulletin board, but that he was likely the only one who felt that way.
Quorum for a referendum has also been increased from 5 per cent to 15 per cent of the student body. Concerns were raised regarding whether voter turnout on referendums would reach the 15 per cent minimum and students were assured that voting participation in the past has hovered at 18-21 per cent. The purpose of the change is to prevent “vexatious referendums” from passing due to low turnout.
With that, the meeting then turned to the issue of fossil fuel divestment. Peter Gibbs of Divest UVic motioned for the following question to go to referendum:
“Do you support the UVSS lobbying the University of Victoria Foundation to withdraw (or ‘divest’) its direct investments in fossil fuel companies and re-invest the proceeds in the most financially and socially responsible alternative investments? Yes/No”
Despite debate being limited to bringing the resolution to a referendum or not, rather than the principle of divesting, the issue was still clearly divisive as attendees used the opportunity to speak to the merits of the referendum. Numerous students spoke for and against the issue, debating the role of political beliefs when investing the endowment fund. During the meeting, Bradley Cranwell, a student member of the UVic board of governors, said that there would be considerable public consultation if the membership voted to have a referendum so students could be educated before they vote. While there were some no votes, the membership approved the referendum.
In an interview after the meeting, Gibbs reiterated Divest UVic’s position, saying that “since climate change is a moral issue, then it is immoral to profit from fossil fuels.”
Taylor Varrell, a third-year political science student and critic of divestment, said after the AGM, “I think it would be irresponsible make this a moral issue.” He continued, “I think [UVic’s] mandate, in terms of investing the endowment fund, needs to [have] the highest return possible to pay for bursaries and scholarships.”
Gibbs noted that UVic would not be the first university to divest, and pointed to Mark Carney, current Governor of the Bank of England (and former Canadian central banker) who has recently come out in favour of divestment.
Varrell acknowledged that climate change was important, and summed up the position of critics by adapting former prime minister Mackenzie King: “Oil if necessary, but not necessarily oil.”
The question of lobbying the University of Victoria Foundation to divest will be posed to students at the end of the spring semester with the next student elections.
Though many students left following the referendum’s approval, the UVSS also passed their 2014-2015 budget while going over certain highlights. Director of Finance and Operations Anas Cheema projected that UVSS food and beverage operations would earn 15 per cent less than last year due to the opening of Mystic Market. According to the budget, the Main Kitchen, Bean There, International Grill, and Health Food Bar is projected to run a deficit of $91 629, but that will be mostly offset by Felicita’s and UVSS Catering and Conferences, which will earn a combined $80 317.