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Documents Expose Concordia’s Secret Dealings with Pepsi*

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Documents Expose Concordia’s Secret Dealings with Pepsi*

Emails exchanged between Concordia administrators in 2010 reveal a secret plan to short-circuit student activism on bottled water while simultaneously negotiating the terms of an exclusivity renewal agreement with the PepsiCo Beverage Company. Administrators had informed students from Sustainable Concordia and TAPthirst (a group fighting bottled water) that no such negotiations were occurring, but that was a lie. In point of fact, the University was working to include a damage-control mechanism in the Pepsi deal to protect Concordia from student activism on the bottled water issue.


Those emails and the exclusivity agreement itself were obtained under Québec access to information legislation.


According to Laura Beach from TAPthirst, Marc Gauthier (former Executive Director of Finance and Business Operations and current University Treasurer) had agreed verbally in May 2010 that there would be no movement on the Pepsi deal until all parties had a chance to meet. In June, that verbal agreement was confirmed in writing in an email to Ms. Beach sent by Johanne De Cubellis (from Hospitality Concordia) that stated “We will have a meeting with Pepsi and provide opportunity for information exchange–therefore no negotiations or decisions have/will be made prior.”


In August 2010, Concordia President Judith Woodsworth told The Link that she expected her VP Services Michael Di Grappa to work with students to introduce a bottled-water ban.


In point of fact, Mr. Di Grappa and Mr. Gauthier were to negotiate a deal with Pepsi behind the backs of student activists.


In October 2010, Marc Gauthier sent a series of emails to Michael Di Grappa that mentioned the secret negotiations while expressing concern about student resolve on sustainable water policy.


“Are they [students] still committed?” asked Mr. Gauthier in an October 4, 2010, email to Mr. Di Grappa. The email also mentioned a provision in the draft contract (the one administrators had led students to believe did not exist) that set a penalty in the event of a bottled water ban. The draft agreement would have transferred 100% of the cost of such a ban to Concordia. Mr. Gauthier suggested there ought to be “dual responsibility should the ban occur.”


The “dual responsibility” clause was a damage-control measure in the event of a ban that administrators thought they still might be able to avoid. The problem was the “commitment” of students to such a ban. But administrators had a plan to reduce student commitment and short-circuit activism. In an October 13 email Mr. Gauthier informed VP Di Grappa about an upcoming meeting where a representative from Nestle Waters was to “educate them [students] on the ‘other side’.” Mr. Gauthier explained to Mr. Di Grappa that the objective of the meeting was to “convince them [students] not to have a ban.”


The plan to “educate” students was never put into action because, the day before the meeting was scheduled to take place, students learned through an anonymous source that an agreement in principal between Pepsi and Concordia had already been reached and the signing of a final agreement was only days away. Students showed up to the October 28 Nestle meeting, but only to stage a sit-in protest.


Despite the protest, VP Di Grappa went ahead and signed the final agreement on October 29, 2010, his last day in office before taking up a position at McGill as Vice-Principal, Administration and Finance. It seems Concordia had hoped that students, faced with the fait accompli of a renewed exclusivity agreement, would abandon the cause of a bottled water ban. If that was the University’s objective, then things did not go at all as planned.


Beginning of the end of bottled water


Concordia’s unilateral move lit the fuse on a student activist bomb. Sit-ins and legal letters were followed by protests and petitions, culminating in a March 2011 Concordia Student Union referendum that saw students voting in favour of a bottled water ban.


In April 2011, soon after the student referendum, university administrators changed tactics, announcing a gradual move away from bottled water sales on campus and towards public water fountain improvements. The moves would be made in concert with its corporate partner, Pepsi.


Today, there is no bottled water for sale in any vending machines on Concordia’s campus. Does this mean the student activists won?


Reflecting on the final outcome, Faisal Shennib from Sustainable Concordia pointed out that Pepsi’s bottled water has been replaced with vitamin water, which he said is not his “preferred outcome.” Nevertheless, with the pro-free-water momentum and the expiry of the Chartwells food service contract in 2015, Mr. Shennib predicted that Concordia will be “a fully bottled water free campus in a year or two.”


Laura Beach agreed that the move towards free water and away from plastic waste is a positive one, but she noted that the bottled water issue has overshadowed a much wider student agenda: “The administration and the media, frustratingly, kept focusing on the bottled water issue and completely ignoring all of the other recommendations and demands–including a non-exclusive contract that prioritized healthy, environmentally and socially conscious products.”


According to this perspective, the University’s unilateral signing of the Pepsi exclusivity deal behind students’ backs effectively shut down any chance for the kind of broader change envisioned by student activists. The contract’s “dual responsibility” clause splitting the cost of a bottled-water ban between Concordia and Pepsi acted as a kind of pressure release valve. It allowed Concordia to avoid the worst consequences of giving in to student demands in one particular area while maintaining its overall corporate partnership with Pepsi.


What do students want? (besides free water)


Stefan Schmidt was a TAPthirst supporter in 2010 and currently sits on the board of the Concordia Food Coalition (CFC) []. He said his personal opinion is that “students need to have a say about what their supply of food and beverages at Concordia is” and he thinks food and beverages at Concordia should be moving “towards being locally sourced, healthy, and affordable.”


With both Chartwells and Pepsi contracts set to expire in 2015, Schmidt said he is “skeptically optimistic about the possibility of a post-Chartwells Concordia.” Whatever path is taken, he thinks it is realistic to foresee the inclusion of “new guidelines regarding environmental sustainability, and more specifically organic and local sourcing.”


Nevertheless, Schmidt is well-aware of “the University’s history of being less than truthful with students when the interests of students are in opposition to the interests of large corporations.” He sees an important role for student mobilization in countering the administration’s pro-corporate bias, “I think that student mobilization has already played a huge role in changing the food system at Concordia. The Concordia Food Coalition has successfully kicked out the corporate coffee shop JavaU and replaced it with a student-run co-op. As well, students have been pushing for changes to the RFP [Request for Proposals–a document that sets out the basic requirements expected from a potential food services supplier] and are facilitating the possibility of social economy organizations bidding against Chartwells. If we keep up the pressure, changes to the big contracts will come. The changes we want may not all be realized this fall, but they will come.”


Will history repeat itself?


It seems that nobody from the Concordia administration, past or present, is willing to talk about what happened in 2010. Mr. Gauthier did not respond to a request for an interview and Mr. Di Grappa referred all inquiries to University spokesperson Chris Mota.


Chris Mota refused to talk about the Concordia’s secret dealings with Pepsi in 2010. “I am not going to talk about what happened in the past,” said Ms. Mota.


When asked how Concordia was working to win back the trust of students, Ms. Mota said that she was not aware of any trust issues and that students have been participating in the current RFP drafting process for food services. “The University established a working group to get student input in the RFP and everybody has been working together in good faith,” said Ms. Mota, who expects the food services RFP to be released before the end of 2014 so that a new agreement can be in place by May 2015. The Pepsi agreement is also set to expire in 2015, but the beverage supply RFP drafting process is not as advanced.


Not everybody is sweet on Pepsi


In 2010, the issue was bottled water. In 2015, the issue could be sugar.


In the wake of the medical community’s successes in fighting Big Tobacco as a contributor to lung and heart disease, there is now a call for action against Big Soda as a leading culprit in today’s obesity and diabetes epidemics.


Dr. Jeff Ritterman, Vice President of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has been supporting ballot measures in the San Francisco Bay area to tax sugary drinks. Dr. Ritterman said that Concordia students should reject another deal with any soft drink corporation.


“When Pepsi partners with a public institution it gives the corporation legitimacy that it doesn't deserve,” said Dr. Ritterman. “Pepsi is closely linked to tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, probably dementia and decrease in sperm motility.”


Ms. Mota would not comment on the ethics of dealing with a corporation that profits from unhealthy sugar consumption but said, “If that is a concern, it will be brought up [at the working group] and will be taken into account in the RFP.”


*This is an unedited version of the article published by The Link (a Concordia student newspaper) here. The Link editors removed the factual statement at the beginning of the article that Concordia administrators were lying to students when they said that no negotiations were under way with Pepsi. The editors also thought it necessary to qualify the claim about administrators’ work to include a damage-control mechanism in the contract by adding “the documents suggest” in front of it. Of course, the documents do more than “suggest” such a thing since the mechanism was clearly written into the agreement obtained by yours truly under Québec access to information legislation. This author has nothing against The Link and has thanked them for publishing the article, but he wonders, why such unnecessary hedging? Is this what they teach in journalism school?

Update: It appears that the Link editors decided at the last minute to hedge because they did not have available to them the documents that had been acquired by the author and they were therefore unable to verify for themselves that the administration lied or the contents of the exclusivity agreement. Those documents were provided by the author to editors 8 months ago but there has been turnover in The Link staff since then. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, rather than asking the author to provide the documents in question, the editors decided to make the above-mentioned edits.


David Bernans is a Québec-based writer and translator. He is the author of Con U Inc.: Privatization, Marketization and Globalization at Concordia University (and Beyond) (Concordia Student Union, 2001) and the historical novel, North of 9/11 (Cumulus Press, 2006). Follow him on twitter @dbernans.


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