Divest UVic blocks university executives and administrative staff from accessing the Michael Williams Building

Campus Environmental News

The blockade occurred less than a week after students were barred from delivering letters to UVic president Jamie Cassels’ office

On Nov. 26, after a rally at a UVic Board of Governors meeting calling for UVic to divest from fossil fuels, seven students were barred from entering the Michael Williams building to deliver letters to UVic president Jamie Cassels. Campus Security blocked their way, and informed the students that they constituted a “security threat,” something for which Campus Security has since reportedly apologised.

Six days later, on the morning of Dec. 3, university executives and administrative staff found themselves unable to get to their offices. As the cloudy sky lightened, members of Divest UVic, armed with sleeping bags, blankets, and bean bag chairs, set up camp at 6:30 a.m. outside the Michael Williams Building blocking all the entrances. 

Shortly before 8:00 am, as more and more people arrived on campus, small groups of university staff gathered, observing the proceedings with consternation. Two Campus Security officers, who declined to comment on the activity, looked on. The Divest members were all smiles, with pancakes steaming on a portable griddle.

“When we were labelled as a security threat, we feel that the administrators who work in this building are a threat to the security of our future,” said Juliet Watts, Divest BC Chair and University of Victoria Students’ Society Director of Campaigns and Community Relations. “So, we’re not allowing them to go to work today.”

The blockade is ongoing into the afternoon, but when the Martlet spoke with Watts, she said that no one had been allowed to enter the building since Divest UVic arrived.

“There was one person here when we got here,” said Watts, “so we’ve been trying to show signs to them to let them out of the building, and we’ll obviously let them out, if they want.”

Of the approximately 135 people who work in the Michael Williams Building, the majority went home. According to Gayle Gorrill, UVic Vice-President of Finance and Operations, Campus Security does not ever attempt to physically remove students.

Divest UVic’s protest is not simply a retaliatory response to being blocked from the Michael Williams Building. At the Nov. 26 meeting, the UVic Board of Governors delayed their vote on whether UVic’s short-term investment plan should include divestment from fossil fuels until January.

“Mostly [the building blockade] is a protest of the UVic Board of Governors delaying their vote on divestment, and stating that they aren’t considering divestment as an option at the moment,” said Watts.  

Divest UVic has been calling for UVic — whose 2018–2023 Strategic Framework states the university’s intention to “review and renew our approach to sustainability in every domain” — to stop investing in fossil fuels since 2013.

Other universities are taking steps towards divestment, something that Divest UVic is celebrating.

Photo by Michael John Lo

“We’re having a lunch at noon,” said Watts. “So we’re inviting all students to come and join us at noon [outside the Michael Williams Building]. We’ll have pizza and cake and we’ll be celebrating UBC and SFU partial divestments.”

Divest UVic’s protest is also related to Giving Tuesday, a global day of philanthropy. On Dec. 3, UVic is asking for donations, which will be directed to faculty-selected, student-focused funds. Divest UVic hopes to co-opt the event, asking students and alumni to boycott UVic’s Giving Tuesday while the university still invests in fossil fuels, and to donate instead to Divest UVic’s fundraiser for the Unist’ot’en Camp. At the time of writing, the online fundraiser had raised $1,265 of a $1,500 goal.

Gorrill says that, while UVic would prefer donations to go towards campus initiatives, people will make their own decisions.

Watts hopes that Divest UVic’s actions will increase pressure on UVic to divest from fossil fuels.

“What we’re looking to see is media coverage, people talking about [the issue], which will then entice the Board of Governors to vote in January for full divestment,” said Watts.

Gorrill says that the university and the Board of Governors know that climate change is a “critical issue,” and that the university is working hard to determine how to most responsibly invest its assets. The board has asked administrative staff to develop potential options including divestment, and plan to vote on the issue in January, although there is no guarantee that the vote will occur at that time.

CUPE 4163, The University of Victoria’s Educational Employees’ Union, reportedly sent a letter to Cassels condemning the lock-out of students from the Michael Williams Building on Nov. 26 and asking that an apology be issued to Divest UVic, and everyone else involved.

Watts said that the union was not involved in the Dec. 3 protest, but that members would be welcome to join.