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B.C. teacher aims to unseat union president over fossil fuel investments

Jill Maguire is challenging the incumbent president of the BC Teachers' Federation on a campaign to divest the union's $38-billion pension fund from fossil fuels.
Pension fund divestment protest
Squamish elementary teacher Kim Benson is among a group of teachers pushing the BC Teachers' Federation to divest from fossil fuel companies.

In her 27 years as a teacher in British Columbia, Jillian Maguire says her students have become increasingly anxious for their future.

“I give any kind of creative writing assignment, for at least half of them, the theme is an apocalyptic future due to climate change,” said the Kitsilano Secondary teacher.

“It’s really killing me seeing many kids just take for granted that they might not have a future.”

Last year, Maguire was among a handful of teachers from around the province who put forward a motion to the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) to lobby against the practice of using pension fund money to finance the fossil fuel industry.

That motion passed with more than 70 per cent support, says Maguire, prompting outgoing president Teri Mooring to send a letter to the BC Investment Corporation (BCI) outlining the teacher union's desire to move its assets toward more green investments.

But Maguire says that effort has fallen short. The 52-year-old teacher is now challenging BCTF president Clint Johnston for president in a bid to make fossil fuel divestment a priority for one of B.C.'s largest public sector unions.

If Maguire were to win the election — scheduled for Tuesday, March 21 — it would be the first time a challenger defeated a sitting BCTF president in nearly 25 years.

Current president 'sat on' motion to divest from fossil fuels, alleges incumbent

Maguire's opponent, Johnston, worked as an elementary school teacher in Chilliwack, B.C., before joining the BCTF’s leadership seven years ago.

In an interview, the incumbent said he doesn’t have a platform. Instead, Johnston says he’s focused on bargaining with the province to improve class size, composition and overall working conditions for teachers. He also said he will continue to back development of an anti-racism office designed to make BCTF’s governance more equitable.

But when it comes to pushing to divest the teacher union's pension fund, Maguire says Johnston’s one-year term as president has failed to make progress.

Outside of “a politely worded letter,” Maguire says Johnston has done the bare minimum to push BCI to divest from fossil fuels.

“He sort of sat on it and ignored it,” Maguire said.

Incumbent BC Teachers' Federation president Clint Johnston said he is running again to continue to bargain for better teacher working conditions. BCTF

​$2 billion in B.C. teacher pensions at risk due to fossil fuel investments, finds study

With $211 billion in assets, BCI is one of Canada’s largest institutional investors. Most of the money BCI manages comes in the form of pensions for teachers, nurses, municipal employees, B.C. government employees and most college and university staff.

Nearly $38 billion of that pot of money comes from the B.C. Teachers' Pension Plan. The fund supports more than 100,000 enrolled members and pays out eligible pensioners between $17,000 and $31,000 a year.

But climate change could be putting a significant share of that money at risk, according to a report released Monday from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

A global rise in temperature of two degrees Celsius could erase $11 billion of BCI’s managed assets, including $2 billion from the teachers' pension fund, the report found.

“The writing on the wall regarding the future of fossil fuels as an investment is clear,” stated the report. “Many forward-looking institutional investors are gradually repricing these risks, minimizing investment, and shifting capital away from the sector.”

Among key fossil fuel investments, BCI has $453 million in TC Energy Corp., $240 million in Enbridge, $186 million in Pembina Pipeline Corp., $188 in Petroleo Brasileiro and $143 million in Suncor.

The tar sands upgrader plant at the Syncrude mine north of Fort McMurray, Alta. Ashley Cooper / Corbis / Getty Images

Overseas, BCI has made significant investments in a major natural gas supplier in Brazil and large-scale natural gas grids in Germany and the U.K. In the U.S., it has invested $60 million with Chevron Corp., has backed firms funding coal-fired plants, and holds a “significant” and growing stake in Puget Energy, a Washington-based natural gas distributor, according to the corporation’s 2022 investment inventory and the IEEFA report.

Johnston said BCTF leadership raised the 2022 motion to divest from fossil fuels with trustees of the pension fund, but that the board decided it would be better to remain invested in the oil and gas sector, both to maximize returns and to try to influence those companies to reduce their carbon footprint over the long-term.

“I recognize there's two perspectives on whether that's effective,” Johnston said. “We will advocate and we will do what we can to convince them that divestment is a role that's needed. And and we'll see what they decide.”

“I do think we've done a good amount. We could probably do more. And I expect we will continue to do more over the next year.”

From activist to insider

Maguire’s bid to unseat Johnston as BCTF president comes amid a rising call to target pension funds for their role in financing major fossil fuel companies.

A 2021 report found Canada’s largest pension fund — the Canada Pension Plan — had increased investments in fossil fuels by 7.7 per cent since 2016, the same year the Canadian government signed the Paris Agreement to limit warming to a later agreed upon 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels.

“One of the hugest problems we have right now is bringing forward the capital we need in the scale and scope to tackle a 1.5 C temperature change,” Jessica Dempsey, a University of British Columbia researcher in the school's geography department and the report’s lead author, said at the time.

“These pension funds are invested in a devastating future.”

That devastating future is looking much more likely — on Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the world will likely blow past the 1.5 C warming threshold agreed upon in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris Accords. That realization comes as many nations, including Canada, continue to greenlight new fossil fuel projects despite warnings such actions would likely derail global targets to limit fallout from climate change.

Others have uncovered links between the directors of Canada’s major pension funds and the oil and gas sector. A recent CBC investigation found eight of Canada’s 10 largest pension funds had at least one high-ranking director who was actively directing a company in the oil and gas industry.

In challenging Johnston for the BCTF presidency, Maguire has once again raised the role pension funds play in financing climate change — this time in front of one of B.C.’s largest public unions.

It’s familiar territory for the Vancouver school teacher. Inside the classroom, Maguire's teaching has taken her across Metro Vancouver to cities like Richmond and Langley; outside of the classroom, she has focused on pushing politicians and the public to take climate change more seriously.

Maguire was arrested for mischief in 2020 while protesting against old-growth logging in Fairy Creek outside the office of George Heyman, B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. Today, Maguire is lead guitarist for the eco-feminist punk rock band Tiny Milkshakes.

“We sing about climate,” she said. “I'm just trying everything that I can possibly think of to get this message out in a variety of ways and hoping that something sticks.”

Vancouver teacher Jill Maguire is challenging the incumbent president of the BC Teachers' Federation on a campaign to divest the union's $38-billion pension fund from fossil fuels. Submitted

Maguire’s platform includes a plan to fully divest BCTF’s pension fund from fossil fuels, and she’s supporting a motion that would do that by 2028.

At the same time, Maguire said she would push the B.C. government to add funding to classrooms she says have been significantly under resourced in recent years. Maguire pointed to Statistics Canada figures that show B.C. spending on primary and secondary education has dropped from 3.7 per cent to 2.9 per cent of GDP between 2001 and 2020 — the lowest of any province.

“There are just so fewer adults in the building that [schools] are becoming incredibly unsafe,” said Maguire. “This is incredibly dangerous. Somebody's gonna get really hurt in here.”

Maguire says a lot of younger teachers have approached her thanking her for putting climate change at the heart of her campaign for BCTF president. Others have approached her worried that divestment would turn off important sources of energy that support jobs and the wider economy.

“If we voted to divest, it wouldn't turn off every fossil fuel tap tomorrow,” said Maguire, pointing to a poll that found 61 per cent of oil and gas workers want greener jobs.

“It’s a process.”

With files from Graeme Wood

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Clint Johnston sent a 2022 letter lobbying the BC Investment Corporation to divest from fossil fuels. In fact, that letter was sent by the outgoing president Teri Mooring.