Culture | Occupying our history

Do you remember April 1997? In those formative years, you were probably learning to share. You were sent to school, brown paper bag packed carefully in your backpack, with a loving reminder to treat others as you would like to be treated.

In April of 1997, McGill students, ironically, were learning the same lesson. Students occupied the 5th floor of the James Administration building to protest fee increases, and to request student representation on various University committees. In the lexicon of a playground child, they were demanding their equal share of the sandbox. After three days, they were escorted out – peacefully – by security, treated with the same respect that they themselves exhibited. The occupation was one of 11 that happened at universities across Canada that spring.

Occupations, by nature, are non-violent. They are a symbolic demand to negotiate with authority. The peaceful nature of the 1997 occupation, as well as that of the Dawson CEGEP occupation last week, show that there is, in fact, a precedent for students to take such actions when their voices are not otherwise being heard. Those who occupied James Administration on November 10 were acting on these principles. However, they were treated in a way that can only be described as brutal, relative to the events of 1997. In 2011, occupiers were treated as criminals rather than engaged members of a campus community. Times have changed at McGill – and certainly not for the better. This change can be summed up in a single moment. The 1997 occupiers flew a banner from the James Administration windows, relatively unhindered. In 2011, the banner released by the new round of occupiers was almost immediately torn down.

“Increased representation on key decision-making bodies…[is] the only way to ensure that our voices are not only listened to, but heard in the future,” said McGill occupier Mera Thompson to a Daily reporter in 1997. “We have tried the democratic process, and we got nowhere, so we’re using another means.” said another occupier, Mike Toye. Looking back at these interviews with McGill students of a decade past, and listening to the same sentiments being expressed on our campus today, it is easy to feel like not much has changed. However, the events of Thursday November 10, 2011, proved otherwise.

It may seem reductionist to compare the adult world to that of children. But when such basic principles, like sharing and compassion, seem to have disappeared from our vocabularies, a return to the lessons of grade school might be exactly what’s needed.

What makes the situation on our campus even more egregious is the example that other Montreal institutions are currently providing. Last week, students at Dawson College occupied their Dean’s office for less than four hours, according to Concordia University’s newspaper, the Link. One student tried to set up a tent. Through conversation and compromise on the part of both sides, the Dean officially acknowledged and granted academic amnesty to students participating in the November 10 strike.

It is sad that only a few miles away, peaceful assembly bitterly ended with police brutality and the forceful removal of students off their own campus.

These instances are proof that occupation of an authority’s office can be peaceful. Although the demands of the protesters in 1997 were not entirely met, something important happened: their protest was respectful, from both sides, and their bodies were respected. In light of the events of November 10,  it is crucial to look back at McGill’s history. Our history. It is only by looking back that we can collectively move forward.

The authors of this article are the Culture editors and Web editor of The Daily, and the opinions expressed here are their own.