A look at McGill University protesters' divestment demands


MONTREAL — Pro-Palestinian activists have set up protest camps at McGill University and a small number of other Canadian universities following a wave of actions on U.S. campuses.

MONTREAL — Pro-Palestinian activists have set up protest camps at McGill University and a small number of other Canadian universities following a wave of actions on U.S. campuses.

Protesters are calling for an end to the war in Gaza, sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

According to health authorities in Gaza, the calls came as Israel's retaliatory attack on Hamas has killed more than 34,000 people.

As the death toll rises, some protesters have called on universities to divest from all financial stakes in companies linked to the war effort. Others went even further, calling on schools to cut ties with all companies affiliated with the country.

Here’s a look at some of the key questions surrounding divestiture claims.

What are the protesters demanding from McGill?

There are a number of demands, but some call for the university to boycott and divest from companies “that fund Israeli genocide and apartheid.” The protest camps echo the calls made for months by some students, who have also gone on hunger strikes to enforce their demands.

McGill said many of the activists in the camps were not members of the school community and that they had seen videos of some people using “clearly anti-Semitic language and intimidating behavior.”

What type of companies do you think fall into this area?

The groups McGill Hunger Strike for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine have released a list of companies in which the university should sell its interests. These include the international weapons manufacturers Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Thales SA and Safran SA, which either supplied the Israeli armed forces or profited from the war.

The list also includes companies it says provide other supplies, such as communications equipment and fuel, to the Israeli military, as well as companies operating in occupied territories.

They also include several major Canadian banks being targeted for their apparent holdings in weapons manufacturers; Canadian grocers selling Israeli products; and companies that have expanded or plan to expand in the country, including Shake Shack, Open Text Corp. and Johnson & Johnson.

What is the financial significance?

Selling weapons manufacturers would largely be a symbolic move because the university's holdings are relatively small. McGill's total assets were approximately $2 billion at the end of 2023.

Investments disclosed include approximately $1.6 million in Safran, $1.3 million in Thales, $1.1 million in BAE Systems and $520,000 in Lockheed Martin Corp.

The activists say they want McGill to sell about $73 million worth of shares if all companies on the list are included, even though nearly a third of that sum consists of holdings in Canadian banks.

The school did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the divestment campaign.

Is there a priority for this type of disposal?

Universities, including McGill, sold stakes in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s to put pressure on the country's government.

Recently, in December, after years of student campaigning, McGill committed to divest from fossil fuels. The university says it will sell all holdings in the world's 100 largest coal and 100 largest publicly traded oil and gas companies by 2025.

The move follows pledges by many other universities and investment funds to sell their oil and gas holdings to cut funding for new projects and to express their opposition to the companies' products.

Do funds ever specifically exclude gun manufacturers?

There are also many funds that screen out investment categories such as weapons manufacturers, as well as categories such as tobacco, gambling and pornography. McGill's foundation has no specific filters, but promotes a fossil fuel-screening fund among McGill donors.

The foundation has invested $2.4 million in Desautels Capital Management, a student-run investment firm owned by the university. All holdings in the fund must be negatively screened across a range of sectors, including the defense industry.

The demands also come as a range of environmental, social and governance policies become increasingly important in investments. The university formalized ESG considerations in its investment process in 2020, a move it says sends a clear signal about the importance of such factors.

In December, the university also committed to “regularly” reviewing its socially responsible investing initiatives. The next review is scheduled for 2029.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press