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University denies access to information

Students file formal complaint for violation of Quebec law

McGill students Christopher Bangs and Mona Luxion released a statement on Tuesday claiming that the McGill administration had refused to disclose information related to military research on campus and the University’s ties to fossil fuel companies.

Bangs and Luxion also allege that the University is violating its responsibilities under the Quebec Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information.

According to the statement, several McGill students submitted access to information (ATI) requests five weeks ago regarding military research conducted by the Shock Wave Physics Group (SWPG) in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“Public records show that over the past decade, the SWPG has regularly engaged in explosives research with the support of Canada’s Department of National Defense,” the statement read. “This includes research on fuel-air explosives (thermobaric weapons) that has been used by the US Air Force.”

Students also requested information about the University’s ties to fossil fuel companies and Plan Nord, the provincial government’s controversial plan for the development of the natural resources extraction sector in the northern Quebec. The statement claimed that the purpose of these requests was to “better understand the links between the University and the corporations involved in these destructive projects,” claiming that at least 11 out of the 25 members of the Board of Governors profits from fossil fuels, and at least five are implicated in Plan Nord.

The University had an initial twenty-day period to provide the information requested under the Act, after which the University invoked an allowed additional delay of ten days. After the thirty days, the University demanded an extra three weeks to respond and denied parts of the requests.

In an email to The Daily, Bangs – the creator of McGilliLeaked, a website that publishes ATIs received from the University – explained that the University said they had to collect hard copies of the documents, which required more time. Regarding the parts of the requests that were denied altogether, Bangs said that they refused all requests for architectural plans of buildings.

Vice-Principal (External Relations) Olivier Marcil claimed that the University had not refused to provide the documents, but has been unable to do so within the time frame provided, citing the sheer volume of requests received by the University.

The Secretary-General’s office has received at least 26 requests containing 57 separate demands since the end of August and at least 155 requests since January, many of which are “broad in scope,” according to Marcil.

“For example, McGill has been asked to provide all documents related to all construction projects over the last five years. For the current year alone, that would be approximately 260 active projects – each involving thousands of documents,” Marcil wrote in an email to The Daily. “A conservative estimate puts the total number of documents at well over 100,000 pages. Each document needs to be read, redacted as required (under law governing access requests), and prepared for delivery. All within thirty days.”

Marcil also said that the Secretary-General’s office currently devotes two full-time staff members to meet ATI demands, claiming that the total hours applied to these requests including other branches of the University “amounts to at least five people.”

The students who requested the ATIs in question have filed a formal complaint with the Commission d’accès à l’information, which will initiate a review process.

“We have requested that our cases be taken forward collectively, as we believe this is a systemic failure to adhere to the law,” wrote Bangs. “At least six people have faced extra-legal delays in the processing of their requests in the last month and a half, and many others have faced similar delays in the past.”

According to Bangs, the review process involves going before a judge at the Commission and could take up to a year and a half.

Marcil claimed that the number of requests received places a burden on all affected University departments and requires the diversion of the University’s limited resources.

“If it is called before the Commission, McGill will be prepared to make this very clear,” he wrote.

Luxion and Bangs agreed that McGill’s behavior is not surprising.

“It’s not actually surprising that this administration is going to major, even illegal, lengths to avoid making public the extent of its involvement in research that ultimately enables armies to kill with greater efficiency,” said Luxion – a PhD student who submitted three ATI requests – in the press release.

“It was sadly not a surprise at all,” Bangs wrote to The Daily. “The only shock was the number of students faced with these delays.”

Marcil declined to comment on McGill’s current military- and fossil fuel-related research, as well as the University’s current lack of regulation on research with potentially harmful applications.