Content warning: This article contains mentions of neo-nazism, white supremacy, Islamophobia and homophobia.
In late November, flyers were posted near McGill’s downtown campus, with the words “tired of anti-white propaganda? It’s time to make Canada great again!” emblazoned over a maple leaf. The posters included links to white supremacist websites and crossed-out symbols that represent Islam, communism, and homosexuality. In response, Christopher Manfredi, McGill’s VP Academic, sent out an email on December 12 (“Flyers posted near downtown campus”) which denied any association between the posters and the University. The email stated: “To the best of our knowledge none of the flyers appeared on campus; nor do we have any information to indicate that the flyers are associated with any member of the McGill community. Nevertheless, I want to state unequivocally that the message communicated by the flyers, both in their text and the pictograms appearing on them, is contrary to McGill University’s values and firm commitment to inclusion and respectful discourse.” While the administration rightfully denounced the content of the posters, their priority was ultimately to absolve the University of any responsibility, rather than to protect affected students and staff, and take concrete steps to opose discrimination at McGill. The vague and defensive tone of Manfredi’s email was an insufficient and unacceptable response to the current resurgence of neo-nazism in the public sphere, and in the U.S. following Donald Trump’s election campaign.
The slogan on the posters echoed Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s overt Islamophobia, xenophobia, and homophobia have emboldened bigots across the U.S., with a sharp uptick in hate crimes since he was elected. While many in Canada have taken Trump’s election as opportunity to boast about this country’s supposed comparative ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity,’ Canada, too, has seen an increase in hate crimes and racist violence.
The administration was right to denounce the posters. However, it should be noted that the administration’s first priority was to exonerate McGill and its students, and only second to disavow the poster’s messages. The email was vague, failing even to name the groups targeted by the poster: Muslims and gay people. Rather than firmly state that Islamophobia and homophobia would not be tolerated at McGill, the administration opted to gesture obliquely towards the “message communicated by the flyers” and its “text and pictograms.”
By failing to name the forms of discrimination that the poster advocates, McGill obscures the fact that such posters are manifestations of pervasive structures of white supremacy and violent nationalism. By failing to acknowledge that certain groups of students are being targeted by the posters, McGill is also shrugging off the responsibility of creating safe spaces for those students. By distancing McGill from the posters in order to protect the ‘McGill brand,’ the University fails to take seriously the reality of Islamophobia and homophobia in the McGill community – whether or not the posters were put up by McGill students. The administration should not wait until racist sentiments and acts of violence appear before vaguely denouncing them. In a time of political upheaval and an increase in hate crimes, McGill must ensure that it is being proactive, vocal, and specific about protecting marginalized students, and actively combating discrimination within the institution.