Commentary  Making space for dissent


Every student at this university has a right to occupy space on this campus and to have their voice heard. These rights should be used to the fullest to amplify the student voice, particularly that of dissenting opinions. On November 6, Divest McGill – a campus group which seeks to end the University’s continued investment in fossil fuel corporations – staged a bike demonstration. Defying campus policy that cyclists may not ride their bikes through campus, the demonstrators rode their bikes across the downtown campus to raise awareness about the possibility of environmental sustainability and push for divestment from fossil fuels at our university.

Though Divest McGill navigated McGill’s bureaucracy and officially petitioned the University through the Board of Governors’ Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility this past April, the University rejected their call to divest from fossil fuels. As a result, they staged direct action that engaged the community and brought attention to the failings of the bureaucratic system. Working through the institution can be effective, but doing that alone is not enough. In some cases, it is important to circumvent the existing structures of addressing complaint.

Although Divest McGill’s bike protest was not shut down by the administration, McGill has a long track record of suppressing certain forms of dissent on campus. In March 2013, Senate voted in favour of adopting the administration’s Statement of Principles – a document proposing definitions for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly on campus. In addition, the Operating Procedures document, used to justify the administration’s reaction to a protest, was not voted on but rather was adopted by the administration and simply presented before Senate. The administration held largely unattended consultation sessions on the document and used the lack of vocal and formalized opposition as an excuse for its implementation, despite calls from labour unions and student groups for it to be removed in its entirety.

The administration has effectively defined what sort of student behaviour is acceptable in our space. The University restricts direct action by defining how it should look, defeating its essential purpose.

On February 12, 2012, Provost Anthony Masi, and Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Michael Di Grappa released a letter in response to the sixth floor occupation of the Deputy Provost’s offices in the James Administration building, saying that an occupation was “not the way in which we would like to see differences of opinion expressed on our campuses.” The limit that administrators put on direct action is overly restrictive. According to this line of thought, direct action is only acceptable if it does not disturb ‘business as usual’ at the University. This begs the question: to what point can students actually exercise their rights to make their point of view heard and legitimized by the school?

As McGill creates the rules of what makes a protest legitimate, student actions on campus space are rendered powerless. Protesting under the administration’s terms means that dissent is only valuable when it does not disrupt everyday campus life; protesting while maintaining acceptable social order makes it impossible to question what that social order represents. Currently, campus is not a space that we can truly take hold of and inhabit; we are only allowed to exist on its grounds when following the rules. But this can change – we as students can embrace our rights and also support those who actively challenge McGill’s status quo.

—The McGill Daily Editorial Board