OTTAWA — Graduate students at Carleton University voted in favour last week of ending investments in companies with connections to Israel in what may be the first time such a divestment motion has been passed in a student-wide election at a Canadian university.
According to unofficial results, which need to be ratified by the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) council next month, 72 per cent of students voted in favour of a non-binding plebiscite question that asked if they believe Carleton should adopt a socially responsible investment policy, which would require the university to stop investing in companies “complicit in illegal military occupations and other violations of international law, including but not limited to: BAE Systems, Motorola, Northrop-Grumman, and Tesco Supermarkets.”
The motion – put forward by graduate students who support the Carleton chapter of the group Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) – didn’t mention Israel by name, but the first three firms have contracts with Israel’s military, while Tesco, a British grocery chain, stocks products made in West Bank communities.
Carleton invests in the companies as part of its pension fund.
The March 21-22 election had an eight per cent voter turnout, which led some to question the plebiscite results.
There were 204 votes in favour of the motion and 77 opposed. According to its website, the GSA represents some 3,000 full- and part-time graduate students.
Yaelle Gang, media and communications executive at Carleton’s chapter of the Israel Awareness Committee (IAC), said she doesn’t believe the vote represents the views of all graduate students.
“It was a certain group of people who turned out to vote, and they had their certain agenda and it passed,” she said. “It’s obviously problematic, but the university has been very clear they don’t have the intention of divesting from those companies.”
But Kelly Black, graduate student representative-elect and current vice-president of operations for the GSA, said all students were made aware of the questions being asked, and they all had the opportunity to vote.
Additionally, he said, the vote was a plebiscite, not a referendum, meaning it aimed to gauge student opinion and was not a vote on a binding action.
Zane Colt, undergraduate student representative-elect to Carleton’s board of governors, said he opposed the wording of the question.
“It only promotes hate and really tries to gang up and demonize Israel, which the board of governors won’t tolerate, because they recognize it won’t promote dialogue,” he said.
But Black said the question did create the opportunity for dialogue. As per election policy, students could register official “yes” and “no” committees on the plebiscite question, but in this case, Black said only the yes side registered.
Gang said most of the IAC’s members are undergraduate students, and there wasn’t a voice on the GSA council advocating for the pro-Israel side.
In contrast, when SAIA tried to get the same question on the ballot for this year’s undergraduate students’ association election, the undergraduate council voted in favour of amending the question to make it broader, removing the part that mentioned the four companies that deal with Israel, Colt said.
SAIA then withdrew the motion, saying the amended wording changed its spirit.
Colt, who is also a former communications chair of the IAC, said he believes the GSA election results mean very little.
In order for the university to divest, the students would have to bring the issue to Carleton’s board of governors, which in the past has rejected such motions.
Last year, hundreds of anti-Israel students protested at a board meeting, which led to a controversial cancellation of the meeting and a closed-door discussion that concluded with the decision the university would not divest from companies that do business in Israel.
At the time, Duncan Watt, Carleton’s vice-president of finance and administration, said the university already considers environmental, social, and governance factors in its investment decisions.
Black said despite the board of governors’ past actions in refusing to consider divestment, he will take on the role of advocating for it.
“I think this is clearly a thing at least graduate students have been asking for, for quite some time,” he said, adding that the GSA has passed motions showing its support for divestment in the past.
“Hopefully I can raise the issue and bring the plebiscite as an example of what the students are asking for.”
In response to last week’s GSA vote, the administration said in a statement that Carleton’s “board adopted a responsible investing policy last year. This policy is based on the United Nations principles of responsible investing and is considered to be best practice. This policy has been incorporated into the statement of investment policies and procedures for the pension plan. No changes to the policy are contemplated at this time.”