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Forty years of McGill français

Speakers recall a protest for change in participation of francophones at McGill

Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of the McGill français movement – a march 5,000 strong along Sherbrooke that demanded the University community become more inclusive of francophone students.

This march was commemorated last Wednesday evening at Thomson House, with three speakers who described their experiences in a movement that changed McGill, a still-majority anglophone university.

“I’ve never been part of a demonstration so large, so electric,” said Mark Wilson, who held the position of editor-in-chief of The Daily for three days in 1969 before being fired by the Students’ Council, the precursor of SSMU Council. At the time, The Daily was not yet independent.

Wilson said that the purpose of the movement at the time was much more radical than allowing students to submit their work in French, now McGill policy.

“The goal was not to make McGill more bilingual,” said Wilson. “It was to expropriate it.”

The gathering, organized by the Commission on Francophone Affairs (CAF) and attended by about 30 people, also included Daniel-Pierre Vézina, who recalled marching in front of the University during his studies.

“A lot of politicians didn’t think it was serious,” said Vézina, but “the protestors really believed what they wanted.

“It was very coherent,” he added, referring to the demonstrators’ remarkable organization. “It’s not the case anymore [with protests these days].”

McGill français, then Opération McGill, currently represents about 18 per cent of students – just under 6,000 – who declare their mother tongue as French. According to McGill enrolment services, 52 per cent of McGill students list English and 30 per cent list another language.

CAF, the current driving force behind McGill français, is less idealistic and more practical in its goals compared to its past incarnation, and has focused this year on increasing bilingualism in student associations. This year, they successfully lobbied for all course syllabi to state that students have the right to submit all assignments in French. CAF also organizes the popular Francofête.

“Now [being at McGill] is easy for francophones,” said Vézina.

But Lucien Lapierre, a former Canadian Senator and host of the influential but short-lived sixties public affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days, said that the movement needs to focus on the University’s place in the province.

“I didn’t want McGill français,” said Lapierre. “I want McGill aux français,” describing how McGill had to recognize it was part of a francophone province and serve the workers of the province.

Lapierre gave an impassioned and almost tearful speech recounting his life in a large, Catholic, rural family with parents who had no love in the world except bettering their children’s lives. McGill, as a gateway to the rest of Canada and the world, needs to be open to francophones, to contribute to the betterment of the life of Quebeckers, and transform Canada into a country that respects the equality of Quebec.

“McGill is the only university in Canada that has to represent Quebec,” he said. “If you leave Canada the way you have found it, I will come back and haunt the hell out of you.”

SSMU VP Internal Julia Webster thought the event was a wake-up call for the lack of francophone representation on campus.

“I think this was a potent reminder of the marginalization of francophone students on campus,” Webster said.

Carman Miller, a former dean of the Faculty of Arts and a current history professor, hired a few years before the protest, pointed to the 1969 Principal’s actions, which framed the protest as a war.

“McGill has rights and will protect its rights,” quoted Miller, recalling Principal Harold Rocke Robertson’s address to faculty and staff at the time, before he then announced that police would surround the large auditorium in Leacock and force people to obey the University’s will.

“McGill represented, rightly or wrongly, what was wrong,” recalled Miller, “and the notion that I was on the wrong side only fed [my will for change].”