Divesting from fossil fuels:
The story of the Jesuits in English Canada
By Anne-Marie Jackson
The Jesuits in English Canada have a long history of engagement on corporate accountability, especially ecumenically through the Task Force on Churches and Corporate Responsibility from the seventies to the nineties and, more recently, with the Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility.
Their recent decision to divest from fossil fuels was a logical step after years of the growing cry of the Earth inextricably linked to the cry of the poor.
The Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario, has led the English Canada province in terms of care of creation for many years. The Centre comprises an organic farm, a 500-year project to develop an old growth forest and a retreat centre increasingly integrating eco-spirituality, while serving organic food, much of which comes from their farm.
Meanwhile, the Society of Jesus at a global level was increasingly challenging us all to integrate the environment into our justice perspectives. The documents of the Jesuit General Congregation 35 in 2008 included a “Reconciliation with Creation” section which lamented the degradation and plundering of the Earth:
#33 “The drive to access and exploit sources of energy and other natural resources is very rapidly widening the damage to earth, air, water, and our whole environment, to the point that the future of our planet is threatened. Poisoned water, polluted air, massive deforestation, deposits of atomic and toxic waste are causing death and untold suffering, particularly to the poor. Many poor communities have been displaced, and indigenous peoples have been the most affected.”
In 2011, Fr. General wrote a letter On Ecology, accompanied by a task force report compiled by the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat in Rome, entitled: Healing a Broken World, which fostered deeper reflection and discussion globally. The Social and International Commission of the English Canada Jesuits was inspired and motivated by this document and subsequently raised questions about province investments, among other initiatives, in response to the challenges of Healing a Broken World.
Meetings with the province treasurer led to an item on the agenda of the Financial Affairs committee. That produced a sub-group which later presented a revised investment policy, including divestment from fossil fuels. Fr. Provincial, Peter Bisson SJ, approved it in 2016, saying: “Climate change is already affecting poor and marginalized communities globally, through drought, rising sea levels, famine and extreme weather. We are called to take a stand.”
Leading up to this point, other religious communities and groups had divested and this became a growing movement with major institutions at the global level adding their voice, for example, the World Council of Churches and most recently the World Health Organization. Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto was a leading voice in Canada. The Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility was also reflecting on divestment and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ was an extraordinary call for ecological conversion. Here is one short quote:
“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” (165)
Corporate dialogue was the earlier route, but many came to the conclusion that on this challenging issue, a public movement was needed to highlight the folly of business-as-usual approaches, given the scale and urgency of the need to transition to cleaner energy.
Anne-Marie Jackson is Director of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice.