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University of Guelph chancellor quits over fossil fuel divestment decision

Martha Billes has stepped down.

The University of Guelph’s chancellor resigned from her role in protest over the recent decision by the school’s top board to drop its fossil fuel investments, President Franco Vaccarino announced on Monday.

Former chancellor Martha Billes was vocal against the April 22 motion approved by the university’s board of governors that halted investment by part of its $32.4 million endowment funding fossil fuel reserves.

“It is with a heavy heart that I inform our U of G community that Martha Billes has decided to step down as chancellor,” Vaccarino said in a release, confirming that the resignation was “prompted” by divestment.

Billes, a controlling shareholder of Canadian Tire Corp., was named the university’s ninth chancellor in 2017. She was reappointed to a second term only in late 2019.

“I remain a passionate champion of the University, proud of their tradition of quality and excellence,” Billes said in a statement released to GuelphWire by a Canadian Tire spokesperson.

“For over 40 years, I have been an investor in business ventures including the oil business in my home city of Calgary and my family business,  Canadian Tire Corporation,” the statement continued.

“My decision to resign as Chancellor was prompted by the incompatibility of my business interests with the Board of Governors’ decision to divest from fossil fuel companies in its endowment portfolio.”

Vaccarino insisted in the university release that there was no bad blood.

“Martha’s relationship with U of G is longstanding, and her connection and affection for the University remains strong,” the president said.

“We appreciate the many positive things she accomplished during her tenure and wish her all the best.”

Divided on divestment

The proposal to end all investments in fossil fuel reserves came after over six years of advocacy work by the largely student-run group Fossil Free Guelph and some support from the greater Royal City community.

Officials were divided on the idea of divestment, with three “no” votes from board of governor members including Martha Billes, who encouraged the board to vote against the motion.

Vice President of Finance Don O’Leary said during the April meeting that research supports a long-term effort to invest outside of fossil fuel portfolios that are just as profitable if not more than oil and gas industry investments.

The vote took place on at the university’s board of governors meeting on April 22.

The divestment motion was based on a positive recommendation from the board’s finance committee on March 31.

Fossil Free Guelph released a statement on the resignation acknowledging the Billes’ conflict of interest.

“We are sad to see that she was unable to support this new step in the transition towards a sustainable future,” Fossil Free Guelph said in a statement forwarded to GuelphWire by organizer Megan Peres.

“We are surprised that someone in a leadership role at such a large educational institution would have such an adverse reaction, to what we see as an important first step for our collective future. We also understand the conflict of interest she may have due to her corporate ties. When it comes to climate leadership, people in power have 3 choices today – lead, follow or get out of the way” Fossil Free Guelph said in their statement.

Fossil Free says they look forward to working with the next chancellor and hope that the next person takes the “bold climate action that the U of G community clearly demands and has come to expect.”

Mackenzie Harris, a graduate student in applied nutrition, was pleased to see Billes part ways with the university administration.

“I’m thrilled to see the chancellor leaving, as it’s clear her interests are not with the students, and her reasoning behind this decision has left her looking cowardly,” she told GuelphWire.

“The chancellor was very against the protests held by students, which she expressed on the call by calling them ‘disrespectful’, among other things.”

Harris is a member of the local Fridays for Future, an activist group inspired by pro-environment figurehead Greta Thunberg. The group has worked with Fossil Free Guelph in the past.

Though the former chancellor did express concerns over some of the actions taken by student activists, Peres said during the April board meeting that some actions were taken “because we exhausted other ways of expressing our message through the outlet you provided.”

Harris added: “Quite frankly, what we students find ‘disrespectful’, is the inability to hear our concerns recently with investments in a controversial pipeline,” referencing a western Canada pipeline project.”

“Thus, this prompted students to engage in non-violent direct action to be heard. You cannot claim your interests are with the students if you aren’t willing to listen to them.”

Vaccarino was sympathetic to the cause during the meeting, saying that student activists, specifically Fossil Free Guelph, “have really been an important part of this journey.”

“We are happy to hear the administration is becoming more responsive to students’ interest in environmental sustainability, and the divestment process is a big step forward in that direction,” said Central Student Association President, Tyler Poirier in an email to GuelphWire. “The CSA is going to continue to look ahead and tackle issues that affect University of Guelph undergraduate students, and listen to their voices.”

The motion in question

The motion passed on Wednesday, April 22 committed the University of Guelph “to divestment from the ownership of fossil fuels within the Endowment Portfolio Investment Fund over a five-year period beginning April, 2020.”

This action is what Fossil Free Guelph had advocated for leading up to the January 2019 meeting, but was rejected in favour of a commitment from the Board of Governors to “reducing the carbon footprint of [the] endowment fund[s].”

Referencing the January 2019 meeting, the background information from the April 2020 meeting read: “Since that time, the University has also become a signatory to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing (UN PRI) and has been engaged in sector-wide discussions to evolve considerations for responsible investing and ESG criteria”

The board of governors pledged to work with their finance managers to make sure the University isn’t impacted by the financial movement.

On March 31 “the Finance Committee agreed that divestment could be achieved as part of this holistic approach and that it was aligned with the University’s broader environmental leadership and sustainability efforts.”

(Reporting by Jack Fisher, Eli Ridder; Editing by Jack Fisher, Eli Ridder)