Culture  “What Does Justice Mean to You?”

Unpacking Institutional Colonial Practices at McGill

“What does justice mean to you?” Kama La Mackerel asked the audience.

This was one of many questions asked by the panelists at Decolonize McGill: Unpacking Institutional Colonial Practices. Organized and moderated by student Benjamin Delaveau, the panel was made up of various activists, academics, and artists, many of whom crucially blurred the lines between these categories. The five speakers were Tomas Jirousek, a varsity athlete and the leader of the vital and revolutionary #changethename campaign, Alanna Thain, Director of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at McGill, Philip S. Howard, prolific scholar and Assistant Professor at the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, Cindy Blackstock, professor at the School of Social Work, public speaker, and author, and Kama La Mackerel, performer, activist, and founder of Gender Blender, a curated QTBIPOC space in Montreal.

Delaveau framed the evening, discussing the essential work of “decolonizing our minds” as a first step to decolonizing the institution. Each of the panellists had the chance to speak at length, prompted by a precise question about their work and activism. Recurring themes included the separation of academia and activism, frustration at the active choices made by McGill to hinder the process of decolonization, and the hypocrisy of a supposedly liberal institution that turns a blind eye to the stagnation of its foundational policies. Blackstock put it aptly when she discussed the risk of McGill becoming one of the “fossils of the future.”

She noted that this kind of precarious and unstable employment is not only harmful to the people employed, but is also a clear indication that the institution places “diversity points” over fostering spaces, including courses, for marginalized peoples.

Tomas Jirousek started the panelists off, speaking of the importance of his mutual identities as an Indigenous student and varsity athlete competing under the R*dmen name. His communicated the hurt inflicted by the R*dmen name, and the necessity of changing it after decades of insidious and overt racism. His description of wealthy donors to McGill “holding us hostage” over an outdated name contrasted with his being called “overly sensitive” for advocating to change the name, saying that it was those who are so committed to upholding a racist legacy that they would throw a monetised tantrum about it that are “too emotional” about this matter. The result of the #changethename campaign could be pivotal, and Jirousek hopes for a future where “powerful Indigenous students take lessons from this.” Later, in the Q&A session, Jirousek stated a preference for the phrase “Indigenous resurgence” over “reconciliation,” as “resurgence” signifies taking back power to him. His vocal activism is indicative of a substantial force preparing for this resurgence, a movement each of the speakers also approached with equal zeal.

The next speaker, Alanna Thain, discussed the conflict between the scholarly study of radical movements and real-world activism. “Is academia where radical movements go to die? Does academic work diminish the chance for radical change?” she mused, and this question recurred in different forms throughout the evening. She placed emphasis on the link between conservatism and corporatisation, saying that at the time of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies’ founding, the departments were told to remember that they are “academics, not activists.” She also mentioned the need for a physical process of decolonization and not just a metaphorical one, explaining that staff members are often hired on a temporary basis to teach courses such as those about Indigenous feminisms. She noted that this kind of precarious and unstable employment is not only harmful to the people employed, but is also a clear indication that the institution places “diversity points” over fostering spaces, including courses, for marginalized peoples. Thain believes that we need a repatriation of resources; she explained how panels, like Decolonize McGill, were used by the university to show that it is indeed progressive and inclusive, but that this is not reflected on any meaningful level. Thain included in this discussion the university’s low rates of employment of people from marginalized groups, as well as the unavailability of intersectional content within the majority of its offered classes. Instead of hiring people from marginalized groups permanently and engaging in real change within the university, McGill uses the labour of activists and scholars as a token of progression to show to the outside world.

Blackstock pointed to institutions like McGill that continually place monetary interests over any possibility of change, citing McGill’s unwillingness to change the R*dmen name in part due to outcry from its donors.

Cindy Blackstock’s contribution to the evening was crucial. She problematized the lack of diversity in the student body and the ingrained preference for Western forms of knowledge in academia. She also discussed the vital link between capitalism and colonialism, and how the two systems are inherently rooted within one another. Blackstock pointed to institutions like McGill that continually place monetary interests over any possibility of change, citing McGill’s unwillingness to change the R*dmen name in part due to outcry from its donors. She asked, “how courageous are we? What are we prepared to sacrifice?” She said that if McGill is unwilling to “piss people off” –  donors, graduates, and racists – how can we hope to progress? Blackstock called out McGill’s refusal to “actively advocate anti-apartheid education,” and their tendency to ‘funnel’ Indigenous professors into teaching specific courses, perpetuating an image of Indigenous issues as niche. She addressed Jirousek directly, saying, “I don’t want you to hold back,” saying his efforts and campaign are integral to McGill’s process of decolonization.

Philip S. Howard gave credence to his co-panellists, and gave a “tour back around” on some of their topics from his own perspective. Howard explained that Blackness was defined against what it meant to be human, and noted the university’s pervasive efforts to keep Blackness, including Black knowledge and experiences, outside of its walls. As such, anti-Blackness is deeply rooted within the university as a colonial institution. He, like his co-panelists, attempted to disentangle the creation of the university as a colonial institution from its present image, saying that we must work within the system in order to change it. He believes that changing the R*dmen name would go against McGill’s “raison d’etre,” citing the institution’s efforts to exclude Indigenous peoples in an active and continuous way. Referencing Blackstock’s earlier comments about McGill’s lack of diversity, he referred to the university’s tendency to “lock knowledge up in silos called diversity,” tokenizing what it sees as “alternative” knowledge and its holders. Placing tokenism over real radical change serves the university’s image and simultaneously harms the people such institutions claim to support. This harkened back to Thain and Blackstock’s references to unstable employment, and Jirousek’s first-hand experiences of discrimination.

Placing tokenism over real radical change serves the university’s image and simultaneously harms the people such institutions claim to support.

The final speaker, Kama La Mackerel, reflected the audience’s awe at the other speakers. “Why am I closing this panel right now?!” they exclaimed, but it soon became abundantly clear that their contributions were just as vital to the panel as those of the other speakers. With vision, passion and humour, they offered a non-academic perspective – instead one of a performer and activist. They started by acknowledging the “invisibilized labour” that allowed the panel to take place – the “behind-the-scenes” work of those exploited by capitalism, again citing its complicity in ongoing colonial structures. They provided a visceral description of colonialism “oozing out” of the university, emphasizing, like Howard, the pervasive nature of “unpacking” the system from within it. La Mackerel cited the immense power imbalance between activists and the administration as one of the reasons that they engage more with “smaller-scale” activism, such the spaces they’ve curated in Montreal for queer and trans BIPOC. They see this as a necessary step in the process of decolonizing institutions such as McGill. They then outlined the two tasks that they saw as standing before us: “creating spaces” that prioritize the safety of the individuals, and “shaking the foundations” of the colonial institution. La Mackerel stated that they prefer the term “reimagination” to “reconciliation,” as it evokes a sense of “learning from the past” and heading in a different direction. They maintained a strong optimism, emphasising that “you have the power to transform yourself, and those around you.”