Commentary | Remember what?

The importance of institutional memory in student politics

The movements that we remember are the movements that leave records. The student occupation of the Leacock building in 1968 spawned the film Occupation; the work done by Demilitarize McGill from 2006 to 2010 is immortalized online.

Our administration banks on, and profits from, the fact that Student X does not remember most of the struggles of previous generations – the ones whose records aren’t so easily found. Student X is concerned with which classes to choose, because they don’t remember the series of cuts that led them to this narrow selection. Student X is concerned with saving money on their meal plan, because they don’t know the history of accessible and affordable student-run food on campus.

This is how the administration breaks promises, takes away autonomy, narrows choices, and revokes freedoms: because we never knew we had them in the first place. And if Student X learns this history, starts to organize, and tries to fight back, the administration can wait until they graduate and try again.

Years ago, McGill students had the right to use the McGill name. They had groups that didn’t face regular existence referenda. Student-run areas offered safer spaces for students to study, eat, and most importantly, talk to each other on campus. SSMU didn’t pay over $100,000 in rent to its own university. Senior administration positions were few, and Russian Studies majors enjoyed their own department.

Last year, an open letter to the administration regarding their treatment of the #6party occupation – a protest against the decision to void the results of the CKUT and QPIRG existence referenda – was signed by 157 alumni. A huge number of these signatories are former SSMU executives and councillors, faculty association executives, members of campus media, and leaders of student groups; in other words, the students on this campus who are closest to and deal with the administration the most. (14 of these signatories are former Daily editors, and more are former columnists and contributors, a fact that I am proud to note.)

“We believed that through dialogue and compromise we could work toward common goals. We acted in good faith and expected the same in return,” the letter read. Despite this optimism, these alumni wrote, “after years of fruitless attempts to engage meaningfully with the McGill administration, we realized that we were wrong.” Nothing has changed.

For student groups, services, and clubs, turnover is rapid – you’re lucky if you grab ‘em straight out of Frosh and squeeze in three or four years of membership. Leadership changes annually, and living memory maybe stretches back for the last five or six years.

This reality is a nuisance for members and executives: when a problem arises, when a question of history is raised, the answer is buried in paperwork, yearbooks, or former members’ brains. Students’ collective lack of knowledge about our predecessors, and a faulty memory of our past, leaves us in danger of losing much more than just a history.

There are written archives – The Daily has 100 years of archives from a student perspective, most of which reside in our office. There are oral archives – faculty and staff on this campus have seen generations of students fight the same battles again and again. We need to utilize these resources, prioritize the development of a knowledge of the context that we are living in, and recognize the longevity of the legacy that we are continuing.

Grassroots organizers often talk about building support block by block, person by person. If we want to build a stronger campus and stronger student movements, we need to build memory – and understanding – year by year, movement by movement.

Queen Arsem-O’Malley is the Coordinating editor of The Daily, but the opinions here are her own. If you want to talk to her, reminisce with her, or offer her a job, you can reach her at qarsemomalley@gmail.com.


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