Educators: It’s time to fight with everything we’ve got

comment by Andrea Loken, ECA member

As the front page of the New York Times reminds us once again, we are racing toward a cliff. Climate change is an educators’ issue and a union issue. It’s time that we spend some energy figuring out how we collectively become part of the solution instead of part of the problem (for example, by investing in fossil fuels). We may disagree about the best way to deal with the climate emergency, but we need to get serious about solutions. This needs to be a full-court press. And it won’t be painless.


Courage from the Earth Defenders at Standing Rock

By Kim Fry (ETFO), with Adam Davidson-Harden (OSSTF)

I took my two month-old baby on his first political protest in early Novembr 2016.   We marched with thousands of others from Queen’s Park to Nathan Phillips Square to stand in solidarity with land defenders fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed pipeline threatens local water supplies and sites that are sacred to the Sioux First Nation. Authorities have been brutal and violent in their treatment of protesters in Standing Rock, a fact that has captured the world’s attention. The march in Toronto was one of the largest in recent years, and many teachers were there to show their support for the land defenders in North Dakota.

As a rule, teachers are a thoughtful, progressive lot. Most care passionately about their students having a bright future and are concerned about social justice. This commitment is in turn  reflected in teacher unions, including my own, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). Unions support teachers to integrate environmental stewardship into their classrooms and teaching practices, and many teachers strive to foster a love of the natural world in the children they teach. This has resulted in an explosion of interest in Outdoor and Environmental Education, and an emphasis on environmental responsibility in the revised Science & Social Studies curriculums.

The connection between environmental and social justice is interwoven in a new commitment to First Nations, Metis & Inuit education by the Ministry of Education, School Boards and Teacher Unions. ETFO created a designated staff position focused on Indigenous education, has developed cutting edge resources, and has endorsed the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, whose reports have helped to shed light on the troubled and violent history and legacy of colonization and indigenous peoples in our corner of Turtle Island.   All ETFO events now begin with an acknowledgement that our work takes place on the traditional territories of one or many First Nations.

Teachers’ work for social and environmental justice has taken place during in a time of austerity, when most governments have been active in pushing for concessions in the form of wage freezes, cutbacks and other retrenchments in the public sector.  Teachers have had to stand up strongly to defend pensions, sick days and other hard fought social benefits that ought to be extended to many more hard working Canadians across the economy. Conservative media and austerity-minded politicians love to target teachers and often point at the strength and stability of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (OTPP) as a reason to punish teachers when it comes to negotiating our contracts. Teachers in this province work hard, help students to excel and deserve good pensions.

The teacher’s pension plan is financially strong, and is Canada’s largest single-profession pension plan with $171.4 billion in net assets. OTPP prides itself as having built “an international reputation for innovation and leadership in investment management and member services.” Given the large size of the pension plan, it is very influential and often impacts decisions made by other large pension plans. Unfortunately, the financial success of the OTPP is built off of many ethically questionable investments. There have been calls in the past for divestment and the pension plan continually reminds those calling for divestment that its purpose is to generate superior long term returns while minimizing and controlling risk. For the last number of years, I have joined teachers who care about climate change by attending the annual meeting of our pension plan (OTPP) and calling for divestment from fossil fuels. We have asked for OTPP to divest from fossil fuels.  The demands for divestment are steeped in science and an understanding of how critical the issue of climate change is. Fifteen of the sixteen warmest years on record occurred since 2001 and in a NASA press release from January 2016, it was acknowledged that 2015 was the first time the global average temperatures were 1 degree Celsius or more above the 1880-1899 average. Canada’s temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees since 1880. 2 degrees is considered the tipping point and many Scientists fear we have already gone well past this point and serious, catastrophic climate change is inevitable.

Our pension plan has billions invested in fossil fuel holdings. Officials with OTPP act as though this request is at odds with the very nature of a pension plan and goes against their fiduciary responsibility to build the most fiscally robust plan possible. However, our voices are increasingly hard to ignore or discount.  With the majority of the questions on the floor of the Plan’s annual meeting being about our substantial investments in the fossil fuel industry, it is impossible for the OTPP to ignore the concerns of the beneficiaries of the pension.  As a result, the Plan has now resorted to what can be accurately labelled a ‘greenwashing’ strategy.

At the last two Annual Meetings of the OTPP, pension plan officials have argued that ‘engagement’ with companies is a better solution than divestment.  This response is essentially a deflection – a classic ‘greenwash’ masking a strategy of non-change.  It is an endorsement of a ‘business as usual’ approach, along with the non-binding promise of ‘dialogue’ or ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies to ostensibly secure promises about good environmental intentions.   “Some members have called for us to divest from fossil fuel companies to make a point,” Ron Mock, Teachers’ President and CEO, during our 2015 annual meeting. “We believe we can be most effective by using our influence and engaging with companies and governments.” Engagement might work in some sectors, but when it comes to burning carbon, there is no way to do it better and more responsibly (unlike forestry or mining).  The climate movement accepts the fact that the world has exceeded its carbon budget, as the organization suggests in its work ‘Do The Math’.  Our planet has almost 2800 gigatons of carbon reserves the fossil fuel corporations would like to burn, but we can only use 565 gigatons if we wish to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points that would push us well past 2 degrees Celsius of global heating.

Nonetheless, the ineffectiveness of ‘engagement’ strategies with fossil fuel companies has been pointed out  by  teachers concerned about climate repeatedly, and dismissed. The pension officials claim they are pushing for more investment in renewables, but OTPP continues to invest billions of dollars in Exxon (a major funder of climate change denial), TransCanada Pipelines, Enbridge and other large fossil fuel companies.

When pressed to give examples of engagement with fossil fuels companies, OTPP officials say they encourage more investment in renewables, but are unable to offer specifics on what their engagement looks like. They dismiss the calls from the United Nations for divestment as an important strategy for action on climate, and erroneously claim that they cannot move towards divestment and maintain their fiduciary responsibility. And so the question remains, what does engagement look like?

This past spring, media began limited coverage of the protests being held by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The Dakota and Lakota peoples who live at the Reservation have a vast traditional territory that includes the land being proposed for the 1,100 mile pipeline.  The Tribe has strongly objected to its construction, which if built is slated to carry more than half a million barrels of crude oil across four states, potentially endangering numerous waterways and aquifers. The current proposal would see the construction of the pipeline less than half a mile from the Tribe’s reservation border, encroaching on sites of religious and cultural significance, as well as  traditional and ancestral lands. Throughout the summer the camp that housed the resistance to the pipeline attracted people from around the world who support the land rights of the Standing Rock Tribe, and their call to protect the sacred waters threatened by the pipeline.

When in late summer construction workers began bulldozing sacred sites and unleashing attack dogs on peaceful protesters, I contacted the OTPP and Enbridge.  The OTPP holds shares in Enbridge, which is a major investor and potential beneficiary of the proposed pipeline.   I asked both the pension plan and Enbridge if they would use their influence to intervene in this outrageous and violent situation. In response, the representative from Enbridge told me there was nothing wrong with what was happening to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, and OTPP refused to comment despite several requests. This casual disregard exposes the reality of the OTPP`s greenwashing.  Exactly how does the pension plan`s strategy of “engagement” work? There has been no public comment and my calls go unanswered. I can only assume they are waiting for this issue to go away.

In late October, armed soldiers and police using riot gear and military equipment cleared an encampment that was directly in the proposed pipeline’s path. Again I contacted OTPP and heard nothing. As I am writing, unarmed peaceful people are being brutalized with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Hundreds have been seriously injured. Thoughtful teachers will talk about how awful this is, and some may even show up to the next rally in solidarity with Standing Rock.  However, until teachers convince our unions (who also independently invest in fossil fuels) and our pension plan to stop investing in projects that violate human rights and destroy our planet, we are complicit in what is happening in North Dakota. Until we begin divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting that money in green opportunities, we are hypocritical. As teachers, I know we can do better. We can demand that we ensure the value and durability of our pension fund while moving us away from our dependence on fossil fuels and help to build a sustainable green economy that values human rights and respects the treaty rights of First Nations Peoples. Let the courage of the land defenders at Standing Rock be our touchstone as we make a bold leap towards divestment.