Dear first years,
We’re the first year council – the SSMU service elected by you to represent all first years and to help you integrate into the McGill community. In our previous piece in The Daily, we touched on last semester’s chaotic nature. The day of November 10, when a peaceful protest segued into an occupation and the forced dispersal of students by riot police on campus grounds – was a large focal point of last semester. In the aftermath, we felt that we should release our response to the events of that day.
After a careful review of Dean Jutras’ report, the preliminary report of the Independent Student Inquiry (which we support monetarily and of which our President is a co-author), as well as hearing and reading eyewitness accounts from our committee members and others, we have reached a general consensus about our stance on the events of November 10.
First and foremost, we feel that the decisions of the administration on that day were irresponsible and helped to cause the confrontation between students and police. For example, it is inexcusable that the University did not activate the emergency alert system, which could have kept innocent people out of the path of riot police. As a result, several people unaffiliated with the protest, including a professor, were caught in the riot police action and physically harmed. The administrators who were present in the building and talking with the occupiers also failed to find a way to report to protesters outside on the state of negotiations – which could have helped to diffuse tensions.
This is especially true in light of the fact that the protest outside was being held partially in response to allegations that occupiers had been harmed by security staff and were being held against their will. We are not naive enough to believe that the protest would have ended as a result of additional communication, nor do we think ending the protest should have been a goal. Rather, this kind of openness would have alleviated the anger and resentment felt by the crowd and would have done a lot to prevent the violent confrontation with police that ensued.
The method by which protesters were removed from the principal’s office was unnecessarily forceful – they were pushed and shoved when, perhaps (we do not pretend to be experts on this), a simple carrying maneuver would have been sufficient to remove them. The fact that the occupiers negotiated their release shows that negotiation was possible, and the administration should have communicated this to the crowd outside. In light of this, we recommend that the administration take measures to train security staff in more peaceful methods of conflict resolution and as well as to develop a communication-centric protocol for protest and occupation situations. Lack of correspondence between students and the administration is one of the sources of frustration that led to the protest in the first place, and an emphasis on improving this relationship with students is imperative.
We deplore the Montreal Police’s unnecessary use of force; the Intervention Group (a.k.a the riot police) never attempted to negotiate with protesters or warn them of the coming forced eviction from James Square. As well, conversations with officers at the scene showed a clear bias on their part against protesters, and they were not interested in hearing about the alleged assault of students by Security. Why were negotiators not called in? Does the SPVM not have personnel that are experts in resolving standoffs, like hostage situations? Yes, it would have been difficult to communicate with a crowd of angry students, but the lack of any attempt to do so is telling. We believe that the police – in an ideal world, at least – should be impartial keepers of the peace, and this was not reflected in their behavior on November 10.
However, we also feel compelled to express the sentiment that, though we agree in principle with the demands (such as accessible education) and frustrations of the occupiers (such as an intransigent administration that often does not seem interested in hearing students’ voices), the timing and execution of the occupation were lacking.
The occupation, we feel, was unnecessary after an extremely successful and largely peaceful march of 30,000 students. The execution of the occupation – occupiers effectively pushed their way into a restricted area, some sitting in the principal’s chair, some of them wearing face coverings – was unnecessarily provocative. Regardless of what the intent of the occupiers was, the execution of the occupation projected an unnecessarily aggressive and violent image of student activism. Considering the coming tuition hikes, this perception is more reductive than ever. An occupation of the administration building lobby, for example, might have been a more sustainable and less contentious option that still carried the message of reclaiming student space and affirming student rights.
We understand the emotional nature of the event, and the varied opinions that many in this community hold about it. As such, we do not pretend to speak for all first year students with this analysis, and we in no way imagine that it is the “right” analysis. We did however feel that many first years, who are new to McGill, would find the event jarring and disorienting – as we did – and so we wanted, in our capacity as an elected council, to provide some of our thoughts concerning the issue, more to serve as a launching point for discussion and personal understanding than anything else.
We hope that first years will not let the traumatic nature of November 10 push them away from activism. In fact, we hope that November 10 will serve as a message: there is much to be fought for here at McGill. The frustrations underlying the events of November the 10 are still very much present, and it will not be an easy fight. A strong, levelheaded, and sustainable student movement is what we need, and first years should definitely find ways to contribute – it is the fight for our future, after all.
Signed by your First Year Council: David Benrimoh, President; Michaël Lessard, VP External; Maymanat Nazari, VP Internal; Mibo Zhao, VP Finance ; Sara Chughtai, VP Academics; and Max Blumberg, VP Communications. You can send us questions, comments, or opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.