McGill students Fred Burrill and Elise Eisenkraft-Klein were arrested by Montreal police and charged with mischief Tuesday night while protesting the Choose Life sponsored event, “Echoes of the Holocaust.”
The students were part of a larger group of about 15 protesters who attempted to disrupt the event. Despite police intervention, protesters persisted in interrupting the speaker, Jose Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, until Choose Life’s reservation on Leacock Room 232 expired at 9 p.m. and club president Natalie Fohl called off the event.
Ruba attempted to link the process of dehumanization used to justify historical genocides to what he viewed as the dehumanization of unborn children used to justify abortion.
Last Thursday, SSMU Council voted in favour of a resolution to censure “Echoes of the Holocaust.” The resolution also called on the University to prevent the event from taking place, and rescinded Choose Life’s ability to gain SSMU funding in the future, in case the event ended up taking place.
At Council, Clubs and Services Representative Corey Omer noted that he had received petitions from several SSMU clubs, including Hillel McGill, who feared that Ruba’s reference to the Holocaust was an inappropriate comparison.
Ruba had hardly finished the first sentence of his lecture when a protester near the front of the room stood up and announced that she believed he had no right to deliver his speech at McGill. The protesters proceeded by singing various songs, at one point completing an entire rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Protesters held their arms, jackets, and signs in front of Ruba’s video projections, which included photographs from biology textbooks, videos of the early stages of an abortion, and images of the Holocaust.
McGill Security personnel were on site from the event’s beginning, but when they were unable to stop the protest, the protesters were warned that the police would be called.
Sometime around 7:30 p.m., three officers arrived. Speaking on behalf of the officers, Sergeant Baccardi informed the students that if they continued to be disruptive, they would be arrested and charged with mischief and possibly obstruction of justice.
“You’re going to have a criminal record, and I’m serious about this. I know your cause [is] a valid one, but I don’t think doing this is where you want to go with this,” Baccardi said. “I will call backup and they will come here and physically remove you. If it comes to that you will be identified, either by force…and fines, tickets, jail time will come with that,” Baccardi added.
Arts Senator Sarah Woolf, who is a vocal opponent of Choose Life, stepped in and demanded that Principal Heather Monroe-Blum or Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson be contacted by phone before the police forcibly removed anyone from the room.
“Many students here at McGill do not believe that this [presentation] is in accordance with the law,” she told Baccardi.
Fohl said she was disappointed by the demonstration and felt the protesters’ behaviour limited dialogue. “I think it’s really unfortunate it had to come to [calling the police],” she said. “In a perfect world we’d be allowed to have an event [which] people are free to come to or not, free to disagree with or not, and there would be respectful dialogue on both sides, and people would allow that to happen. But that’s not the case at the moment.”
The protesters accused Choose Life of trying to hold their event in secret, claiming Fohl had misled The Daily on Friday when she said the event would be cancelled
“We were told the event was cancelled on Friday. Why? Because Natalie Fohl called The Daily and told them. She didn’t say that to SSMU! She just told them she wasn’t sure. That sounds like a lie.” said protester Darrah Teitel.
Audience member Sarah Rohoman, U2 Arts, said that while she felt the contents of Ruba’s discussion were offensive, she also did not approve of the methods used by the protesters.
“I don’t feel like what they’re doing is correct. I believe everyone should have their say. I appreciate what they have to say, but the way they’re doing it is not correct,” Rohoman said.
Ruba told the protesters he was open to discussion, and that Choose Life had asked for a pro-choice speaker to engage in debate.
Protesters, however, said that the presentation did not lend itself to dialogue. “The problem is you trick people into debating you, and then you show graphic images to scare them instead of using actual facts,” one said. “You pride yourself on scaring people out of having abortions.”
“This event goes against the McGill Charter, SSMU’s Equity Policy, [and] Canada’s Charter of Rights, which protect my body and me from the harassment that you are trying to show in this video. We have no desire to see you speak because we don’t want the women in this room to suffer your harassment,” said Teitel.
In the midst of the confusion, Ruba explained to The Daily why he felt it was important for protesters to hear his message.
“[The protesters] have accused us of all these things, and frankly they haven’t heard this presentation yet. When people pre-judge someone based on heresy and rumours, that’s called prejudice,” Ruba said. “We don’t mind protests; that’s what free universities and free societies do. But they don’t censure people simply because they disagree or prevent people from sharing their ideas. That’s no longer what protests should be about. That’s censorship.”
As Ruba attempted to begin his presentation for a second time, police escorted Burrill and Eisenkraft-Klein to waiting squad cars. Within a short time, disruptions resumed as protesters began to sing, shout, and ring their cell phones.
“A vagina is not public space. A uterus is not public space,” said Teitel as Ruba tried to resume his speech.
Some of the audience members then began heckling protesters.
“Why don’t you just shut your mouth!” a woman said in response to protesters’ complaints.
Eventually, at least ten officers, two squad cars, two minivans, and two motorcycles arrived on McTavish. Officers waited outside the room as comments flew back and forth between protesters and the audience.
Ruba attempted to deliver his lecture, while displaying photos of the Serbian, Armenian, Cambodian, and Jewish genocides.
Baccardi and other officers, as well as Ruba, stayed to take questions from bystanders following the event’s abrupt ending.
Outside, two students attempted to approach the squad cars containing Burrill and Eisenkraft-Klein. One of the students was pushed by one of the officers, while the other’s arm was bent back by another officer who warned him to keep his distance from the vehicles.
In response to yesterday’s events, the SSMU executive issued an open letter Wednesday condemning the University’s refusal to cancel the event, which they felt violated the SSMU Constitution and Equity Policy. The executive, representing council, the highest governing body of SSMU, also asked the University to respect the decisions made by Council concerning its clubs.
“Vulnerable students tried to communicate their concerns to the University through the available channels: the SSMU executive, SSMU Council, AUS Council, the McGill Tribune, and The McGill Daily. There were no other avenues through which to stop this event, which they deemed as victimizing, offensive, and stifling of educated debate, from happening,” the letter read.
“Furthermore it is unfair to expect these student protesters to calmly watch a presentation and engage with a speaker when such a presentation would make them feel violated, demonized, and silenced,” the letter continued. “This event created a hostile environment and should not have been permitted. It is possibly most disappointing that when students peacefully engaged in a public response to this hostile environment, they were removed through a police intervention.”
But Mendelson defended the administration’s actions. Following the event, he said that McGill chose not to intervene because the University did not see the SSMU censure as a reason to limit debate.
“We want to foster debate, we do not want to restrict the expression of ideas…. As I said to SSMU when I was asked to intervene and cancel the event, I said ‘Look, debate free of constraint is important as long as the discourse remains civil, does not violate a law, or McGill’s code of conduct and disciplinary procedures’,” Mendelson said.
“[The event] was scheduled in a room that was not a public space [and] not in an open public area. The publicity of the event advised individuals of the nature of the graphic imagery, and the graphic imagery was confined to the room. So in that sense, I felt the event was an appropriate event.”
According to SSMU Equity Commissioner Jonathan Hann, only one equity complaint has been submitted this year against Choose Life, but he noted that he has received many informal criticisms of the club.
“I’ve had a lot of students express concerns to me, not necessarily in terms of a complaint, [but] when it comes to [Choose Life] holding events, they feel that maybe it’s a violation of their rights as a student to walk through campus and be confronted with these signs and images they don’t necessarily find appealing while walking about doing their everyday business,” Hann said.
Hann also noted that he had received complaints from the protesters, “They feel their right to assemble has been violated, and they were treated unjustly and unfairly because of it,” Hann said.