Montreal·Analysis

A look at where McGill's money goes — and why protesters say it's a problem

Protesters on McGill University’s campus want the school to divest from companies with ties to the state of Israel. Here’s a look at some of the university’s investments, why many people consider them problematic and what the university could do about it.

On-campus encampment enters Day 5 and so far McGill has not budged

Wearing a keffiyeh, a person plays a portable drum at an encampment, surrounded by other pro-Palestinian protesters at McGill University.
A drummer plays at a protest encampment at McGill University’s campus in Montreal on Monday. (Peter McCabe/Reuters)

The encampment protest on McGill University's downtown Montreal campus is part of a growing movement to get academic institutions around the world to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

The protests are a direct response to the staggering death toll in Gaza, where more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed since last October, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, after a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel where about 1,200 Israelis were killed and hundreds were taken hostage.

Protesters have been camping out at McGill since Saturday afternoon. They accuse the university of being "complicit in upholding the apartheid regime of Israel."

The protest has helped shed light on the school's investments. It also reignited questions about divestment, how feasible it is and whether McGill can do more to address the concerns of protesters, many of whom are their own students.

So far, McGill hasn't budged.

security guard dressed in blue looks over tents on grass
A McGill University security guard looks out at the pro-Palestinian encampment set up on the university campus in downtown Montreal on Monday. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press)

Where is McGill's money going?

Earlier this month, two student groups — McGill Hunger Strike for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine — released a list of 50 companies the university invests in. The groups say those companies have "links to the ongoing Palestinian genocide."

The list is based on information publicly available on McGill's website.

Fence erected around an encampment where pro-Palestinians protesters have gathered on a field at McGill University. Banners hang from the metal fence including one that reads: ceasefire.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at an encampment at McGill University in Montreal, Saturday, April 27, 2024. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As of late December 2023, McGill's investments in those companies totalled at least $73 million. Other investment totals aren't disclosed because they're lower than $500,000. 

The most recent estimates show that McGill's endowment fund is worth about $1.8 billion.

Some of McGill's investments that have drawn the ire of students and others for years, well before the latest Israel-Hamas war, include Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturer with direct ties to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Safran, a French air defence company.

According to the company's website, Lockheed Martin has "strengthened the IDF's ground forces" and "supplied the Israel Air Force with fifth-generation fighter jets" with 50 aircraft that were projected to be delivered by 2024.

"I'm here in solidarity with Palestine because I, amongst many students and people in the community, refuse to see our tuition money go to killing children in Gaza," said Zeca Eufemia, a McGill student and teaching assistant who is among those taking part in the on-campus protest.

Other companies were included on the list for various reasons such as operating in settlements considered illegal under international law, investing in Israeli companies or operating in Israel.

Charlie Eaton, an associate professor at the University of California who is critical of the finance industry's involvement in higher education, said protests at McGill and other universities show how "the growth of endowments means that universities are increasingly connected to the global economy in surprising ways."

WATCH | McGill staff give protesters final warning: 

See the moment protesters are told to dismantle McGill encampment

1 month ago
Duration 1:00
A man with a bullhorn from university security told protesters Monday afternoon they 'have no right to be here' and warned that measures involving the police would be taken if they refused to promptly leave.

How difficult is it to divest?

In one of its responses to the protest, McGill issued a statement saying it hires external fund managers to handle its investments and "does not invest directly in individual stocks or companies."

The university also said those fund managers choose "investments for mandates in segregated accounts and pooled funds, the composition of which is continually changing."

Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., doubts that many universities will divest. 

He said strict rules on the management of endowments, like forbidding investments in weapons manufacturers or companies that operate in Israel, "gets very, very difficult when you try to pull that off."

"Even if we could know everything that was in every index fund at any given time — and endowment managers should have the power to do that — it's unclear whether all of those businesses are operating in Israel or contracting subcontractors who are working in Israel."

Eaton says it's gotten much easier to divest in recent years, even going as far as describing McGill's response as "sort of a silly statement." 

There are posters of two protests at McGill, one from 1985 and the other from 2024, and they draw a comparison between  the current wave of protests with the one from nearly 40 years ago prior to McGill's divestment from apartheid South Africa.
This composite image, shared on social media by the group McGill Hunger Strike for Palestine, draws comparisons between the current wave of protests with the one from nearly 40 years ago prior to McGill's divestment from apartheid South Africa. (Instagram/McGill Hunger Strike for Palestine)

He pointed to the existence of "hundreds" of fund managers that have screening processes to create "environmentally and socially responsible" investment profiles.

He said in recent years there have been examples of universities ridding themselves of controversial investments, such as Columbia University divesting from private prisons in 2015.

On Monday afternoon, CBC News reached out to McGill University for comment on Eaton's criticisms, and is waiting to hear back.

Ultimately, Eaton said, the reluctance of some universities to divest comes down to old habits dying hard — and that includes not everyone in the campus community having a say in how an endowment is invested.

"There's no getting around asking ourselves the hard questions: What are our principles? What are our values? And how can they guide our investments?" he said.

WATCH | U.S. professor explains how divesting works: 

What does divestment from Israel actually mean for schools?

1 month ago
Duration 7:43
Students' demands that their universities divest their endowments from companies that do business with Israel are easier said than done, says Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that McGill's investments in the 50 companies listed in the data set released by the students totalled at least $19.3 million. In fact, those investments are worth at least $73 million.
    Apr 30, 2024 10:01 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Antoni Nerestant has been with CBC Montreal since 2015. He's worked as a video journalist, a sports reporter and a web writer, covering everything from Quebec provincial politics to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

With files from Sarah Leavitt and Cassandra Yanez-Leyton