News  Travel directive to restrain research

Sweeping guidelines make politically-sensitive areas off-limits to students, but not faculty

McGill faculty and students are resisting an administrative travel directive that would prohibit curricular and co-curricular travel to a majority of politically-sensitive countries.

The directive, currently in draft form, would restrict undergraduate and graduate McGill-sponsored travel to countries or regions listed under the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) with a formal travel warning, which caution against either non-essential travel or all travel. The guidelines – which are not referred to as official McGill policy – will likely not affect faculty members.

SSMU VP University Affairs Nadya Wilkinson and other students will seek out professors who disapprove of the directive, write letters to the Dean and administration, and research similar travel policies at other Montreal universities.

“If we wait for the guidelines to come out, we won’t be able to control them or push them back,” Wilkinson said.

She accused the directive of limiting undergraduates to act as legal adults who are capable of making their own informed decisions.

“It speaks for a disrespect to what [undergraduates] do, or toward us as people,” Wilkinson stated in her report to SSMU Council on Thursday. “That’s not the intent of the policy, but it’s how it comes across.”

Students’ hopes to legally navigate around the directive with a waiver granting McGill immunity from financial liability relating to travel in dangerous areas were recently dashed. As stipulated by the Civil Code of Quebec, students could still hold McGill liable in the case of injury, death, or moral harm even after signing a waiver.

“We wanted to propose a waiver, but they don’t carry the same weight in Quebec,” said Pat Boily, AUS VP Academic.

Unaffected by Quebec’s rules on waivers, Ontario’s Queen’s University enacted policy that allows students to conduct field research in unmanageable risk areas in groups of two or more. Prior to departure, students make a risk-assessment of their activity and sign an acknowledgment. Queen’s policy is not rooted in DFAIT’s warnings.

Wilkinson was shocked that McGill had yet to find a way to incorporate individual consent into its travel policy.

DFAIT states on their web site that “Travel Reports and Warnings provide recommendations about security conditions abroad to enable travellers to make their own informed decisions regarding destinations.” But Daniel Barbarie, a spokesperson for DFAIT, explained in an email to The Daily that the University could act in lieu of the individual’s decision to travel areas rated dangerous.

“It is the institution’s sole responsibility to determine whether they will allow or deny travel opportunities,” said Barbarie,

The directive aims to manage risks associated with travel to certain areas, according to its engineer, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson. The directive was in part triggered by the last-minute cancellation of a 14-person McGill research team set to fly to Indonesia, and the Canadian International Development Agency’s decision to remove youth internships from countries with formal travel warnings.

While undergraduates will be affected by the directive and their objections to the policy may be less seriously considered, graduate students may be hit hardest, Wilkinson claimed.

According to McGill political science Professor Juliet Johnson, Director of Political Science Graduate Studies, who is working against the policy’s implementation, the directive would greatly harm the quality of masters and PhD student research.

“We realized that if they implemented that, it would be devastating to our graduate program,” Johnson said. “The point of political science is to study conflict, and if you can’t go there then the research you can do is limited.”

Johnson added that students from countries like Lebanon and Pakistan would be prevented from returning home to complete research or internships under their current program.

In a letter written by the Graduate Association of Political Science Students to the University, they pointed to how the directive would deter applicants from choosing McGill, and compromise students part-way through research in countries upon which warnings have been issued.

The directive affects course work and field research, and is also likely to affect internships – meaning that McGill would refuse credit for independent internships in high-risk areas. Currently no Arts program mandates an international internship.

Mendelson recognized the value of interning and researching abroad.

“We are mindful of the positive role that international experiences can play in university education, so we want to ensure that students have access to as broad an array of opportunities as possible,” Mendelson wrote in an email to The Daily. “Of course, our primary goal is to ensure the safety of McGill students.”

But Wilkinson was dismayed that the directive only consulted academic Deans, and thought it should have passed through Senate, considering the far-reaching implications of the policy it mandates.

Mendelson explained that a working group was established to draft a more nuanced statement of practice and to continue discussing guidelines.

“Once the draft is ready, there will be appropriate consultation with the Deans, faculties, and students,” he wrote, adding that an new draft would be ready at the end of the month.

It is likely, however, that the directive will still assess the ability to travel based on DFAIT’s Travel Warnings. Its implementation will extend existing policy, as certain programs at McGill already operate according to the DFAIT guidelines, including the Arts Internship Office and the McGill Field Studies program.

According to McGill economics Professor R.T. Naylor, the DFAIT warnings provide an unsound basis to evaluate whether students may travel, as the categories are based on political determinants that do not explicitly take safety into account.

“[The administration] is dependent on bureaucrats in Ottawa inventing these silly categories,” he said. “They’re arbitrary definitions that shift only as a result of political negotiations.”

DFAIT states their warnings are monitored on an ongoing basis, frequently reassessed, and updated promptly in response to events “including the threat of terrorism, civil unrest, war, rebellion, natural disasters, political instability, and health emergencies,” but adds that ‘non-essential travel is a personal decision, based on each individual’s family or business requirements, knowledge of a country or region, and other issues.”


Affected Countries

Avoid all Travel: Afghanistan, Algeria (R), Azerbaijan (R), Bangladesh (R), Burundi (R), Cambodia (R), Chad, Colombia (R), Comoros (R), Democratic Republic of Congo (R), Ecuador (R), Eritrea (R), Ethiopia (R), Georgia (R), Guinea (R), Guinea-Bissau (R), Haiti (R), India (R), Indonesia (R), Iran (R), Iraq, Israel, the West Bank, and

Gaza (R), Kenya (R), Lebanon (R), Mali (R), Moldova (R), Myanmar (Burma) (R), Niger (R), Nigeria (R),

Pakistan (R), Panama (R), Peru (R), Philippines (R), Russia (R), Somalia, Sri Lanka (R), Sudan, Thailand (R),

Uganda (R), Uzbekistan (R), Venezuela (R), Yemen.

Avoid non-essential Travel: Albania (R), Algeria (R), Angola, Armenia (R), Belize (R), Bolivia (R), Burundi, Cameroon (R), Central African Republic, China (R), Colombia (R), Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia (R), Guatemala (R), Haiti, India (R), Indonesia, Iraq (R), Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza (R), Lebanon, Liberia, Libya (R), Malaysia (R), Myanmar (Burma) (R), Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia (R), Rwanda (R), Sierra Leone (R), Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Turkey (R), Zambia (R), Zimbabwe.

(R) indicates that only regions of the country are affected by the warning.