Over 100 riot police stormed McGill campus last Thursday evening, forcing demonstrators, who had gathered in front of the James Administration building, off of campus. Police used pepper spray, tear gas, and physical force against demonstrators.
The demonstration began as the earlier protest against tuition hikes concluded outside Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s office, at McGill College and Sherbrooke across from Roddick Gates. Several McGill students received text messages informing them that 14 students had entered the James Administration building and were occupying Principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s office. The occupation began at 3:45 p.m.
At 4:05 p.m., a group of approximately fifty students entered McGill campus.
Farid Attar Rifai, president of the Association of McGill University Support Employees, was one of the first people on the scene.
“I saw Security…were rushing towards the James building, so I knew [the students] were already inside at that point,” Attar Rifai said.
He explained that, upon his arrival, all entrances to the building were locked, and security guards were positioned outside.
Some of the demonstrators took a megaphone back to the Roddick Gates, where they encouraged others to join them. “We’re in McGill, we need more people,” screamed one demonstrator. The crowd outside of James Administration grew to around 200 people.
Reports of violence used against the occupiers by McGill Security reached those outside through text messages and phone calls. Demonstrators proceeded to form a human chain around the building, demanding entrance.
At roughly 4:50 p.m., four Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) officers approached the building from the Milton Gates and entered James Administration through a back door, where students attempted to block them.
“When we heard the cops were coming…we decided to delay them so people inside could have time to negotiate,” said Attar Rifai.
Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson confirmed that he had been inside the James Administration throughout the demonstration.
“There were four police who came to survey the situation. They at no time interacted with the people upstairs,” he told The Daily.
Mendelson noted that he did not know who had called the police officers. According to Mendelson, McGill Security is “mandated – or certainly allowed – to call the police when they feel that there is a threat to people or a threat to property… but I don’t know what triggered the decision to do that.”
Moments after the four police officers arrived, around twenty students entered through a side door for a peaceful sit-in on the second floor, with McGill Security supervising.
Just before 5 p.m., twenty police officers on bicycles approached James Administration from the Milton Gates. The officers spoke with McGill Security, but did not take action immediately.
Officers lined up, using their bicycles as barricades against the demonstrators. Some swung their bikes at demonstrators who attempted to push the police off campus.
A brief confrontation took place between demonstrators and police. Demonstrators pushed police back while officers dodged items, including sticks and water bottles, thrown by the crowd. The officers rode away, to the cheering of students.
Shortly after 5 p.m., about forty riot police entered the campus through the Milton Gates, beating their shields with batons. Police pushed the crowd towards the Arts and Ferrier buildings. Demonstrators were pepper sprayed after pushing back against the police lines in front of James Administration.
“The University did not call the riot squad. I can tell you that, unequivocally,” Mendelson said in an interview Friday afternoon. “I know that the police who were here called in [the riot squad].”
He elaborated on what led to riot police being called onto campus.
“[The four police officers] looked out the window, and they saw the crowd was growing – there were conversations, things seemed to be getting more heated,” Mendelson explained. “I don’t know why, what factored into their decision.”
Jean-Pierre Brabant, a member of the SPVM’s public relations team, declined to answer questions as to whether the riot police had authorization to enter McGill campus.
A second wave of over fifty riot police approached from the Y-intersection and surrounded demonstrators. At this point, students taking part in the occupation on the second floor of James Administration exited the building.
One demonstrator, who was trying to cross police lines on the west side of the building, was picked up, dragged, and thrown to the ground. Police formed a line and began forcibly pushing demonstrators down the steps, towards the Milton Gates.
Dozens of demonstrators were pepper sprayed by officers while others carried water to those who had been blinded by the spray.
Gregory Mikkelson, an associate professor in the Environment and Philosophy departments, was on his way to pick up his children from daycare. While leaving campus he noticed the protest outside of James Administration and stopped to observe.
“Three Montreal riot police came at me, clubbed me in the ribs and stomach with a baton, knocked me over – I don’t know if it was a club that knocked me over or one of them pushing me, you know, it all happened so fast – I popped right back up and they pepper sprayed me in the face,” Mikkelson said.
“After I was attacked, my first thought was to check with the person I had been talking with shortly before that and see if he had witnessed it, and ask him if I could get his information so I could corroborate if necessary,” he continued.
Anna Hermanson, a U2 McGill student who was involved in the demonstration, spoke to The Daily after the event.
“We were beaten in the ribs, in the back of the knees, on our shoulders, it was unbelievable,” she said.
“We decided to let go of one another and put our hands up, and say, ‘We’re standing here peacefully, this is our campus, we have a right to be here. Please.’ I’m sobbing at this point…asking, ‘Why are you doing this? We’re students, we can be here, we’re protesting peacefully, please don’t come forward,’” she continued.
Fleeing protesters were unable to enter McGill buildings, which had been locked. McGill’s emergency alert system was not activated.
Mendelson spoke to the activation procedure of the system, which is controlled by McGill Security.
“The emergency alert system would go out to all the members of the community, and there’s a trade-off whether or not that would have calmed the situation or fuelled the situation,” he explained.
Once protesters had been pushed off campus onto Milton, police shut down the intersection at Milton and University, while demonstrators lingered in the street. Shortly after, tear gas was deployed. The police proceeded to charge towards remaining demonstrators, breaking up the crowd.
U2 student Zoe Pepper-Cunningham, who had been walking through campus with her bicycle and was not involved in the demonstration, was pushed to the ground by police in the intersection.
“I couldn’t run really because I had my bike, so while they were charging, they just pushed me down onto my bike and pinned me on the ground. It was kind of blurry for me but I felt kicking and hitting and they threw my bike – which is now broken, pretty badly – and dragged me by my arms,” she said.
Four arrests were reported from Thursday’s demonstration, two of which have been confirmed to be McGill students. U3 students Alex Briggs and Ariel Prado were arrested, separately, near James Administration. Both were released late Thursday evening, although Briggs has a pending court date.
Immediately after the demonstration ended, McGill student groups, including SSMU, QPIRG, and McGill Student Emergency Response Team began mobilizing to offer support to demonstrators who had been affected.
— with files from Henry Gass and Anthony Lecossois