As a part of the two-day educational series “From Austerity to Solidarity: Communities Fighting Back!” the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) McGill hosted a workshop titled “History of Student Movements at McGill” on March 25. The workshop, held at the ECOLE house, explored the historical context of student strikes and various tactics students could utilize in resistance.
The workshop included a conversation on the various reasons to hold resistance movements at McGill. One reason discussed by participants was ensuring affordable education. One attendee brought up “creating power that is outside the traditional hierarchies of power that exist in our society” as a reason to resist at McGill.
Another in attendance mentioned the need to resist the discourse and mindset that education is a consumer product to be bought, when in reality, students provide a great deal to the university in terms of labour and research.
The facilitators and attendees explored ways in which students are complicit in McGill’s oppressive actions and also looked at the privileges that are involved in attending the university. Facilitator Becca Yu said, “Quebec has much cheaper tuition, and people will come because of that reason, but they are not committed to fighting for accessible education.”
“They’re not recognizing [the] history that has kept tuition cheaper,” Yu explained, referencing Quebec’s history of student movements against tuition hikes.
Jaime MacLean, another facilitator, added, “While [international students] are here, they bring their money and gentrify neighbourhoods.”
The workshop also explored tactics of resistance besides strikes and how they have been used at McGill in the past. Some of the methods mentioned included teach-ins, blockades, skill-sharing, and occupation.
Yu also cited the creation of student organizations such as Midnight Kitchen and QPIRG-McGill as a form of resistance. She spoke on the 2010 closing of the Architecture Café, saying that she considered it to be “the last student-run food and hang-out space on campus.”
“There are still other student-run things on campus […] but they’re not actual spaces where people can mix and mingle and be,” continued MacLean. “What does it do to society when we don’t have those public spaces?”
The workshop also addressed creative and theatrical disruptions as another form of resistance. Yu referenced the on-campus blood drive disruptions of 2005, in which participants dressed up in drag to combat discriminatory practices against queer people.
One of the tactics that the workshop focused on specifically was student representation in the university setting. MacLean said, “[At McGill], there are structures that exist like the Senate, the Board of Governors; departments have associations, and all of these bodies have students on them.” Although she questioned the efficacy of the creation of these boards, she recognized that “they all have student seats on them because of an occupation in 1968 of the [James] Administration building.”
Although the workshop focused primarily on the history of student movements at McGill, it also included information on the Sir George Williams Affair, the largest student occupation in Canadian history, in which close to 200 students occupied a computer lab at Concordia University in opposition to a racist professor.
The workshop ended with a discussion on the limitations of student activism. “Student organizing is not perfect,” said Yu. She added that it was important to look at “the ways that student resistance can link up with other struggles.”
Yu also noted that, in the past, power structures present within strikes and student movements left many feeling conflicted between supporting the cause and escaping “the racist, patria rchal bullshit happening within it.”
“There were a lot of interpersonal dynamics that had a lot of problems [in the 2012 Quebec strikes].” She also noted that “the overwhelming whiteness of a lot of the groups who were organizing” was a part of the problem.
“If the way that we organize and work together recreates the systems of oppression that exist that we are trying to fight against, then what are we really accomplishing?”