On the morning of March 7, members of Divest McGill began an occupation of the McCall MacBain Arts Building, marking the start of the longest occupation in McGill history. Some students pitched tents in the lobby of the building, where they’ve been sleeping each night since the occupation began. Others have hung #OccupyMcGill posters and banners, handed out flyers to students and staff, and hosted education-based events and activities. These included workshops and discussions, community meals, reading circles, and movie screenings.
Divest McGill is a student-run environmental and social justice campaign “calling on McGill University to acknowledge and address the urgency of the climate crisis by withdrawing the direct (segregated) investments of its endowment fund from the fossil fuel industry.” The organization’s goals include: McGill’s complete divestment from companies complicit in human rights violations and the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies; the mobilization of students, at McGill and across so-called Canada, in support of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups; and the education of the McGill community “in support of bold and justice-oriented climate action.” Since its founding in 2012, Divest McGill has conducted thorough research into McGill’s fossil fuel investments, distributed countless petitions, held numerous demonstrations, and engaged in constructive conversations within and outside the McGill community.
#OccupyMcGill is a culmination of these efforts and a milestone in the Divest campaign. A specific goal of the occupation is democratizing McGill’s Board of Governors, which is made up of senior executives from the Bank of Montreal (BMO), the Power Corporation of Canada, the National Bank of Canada, Metro Inc., HSBC Bank Canada, and Redbourne Properties Inc. The current Board is controlled by and “serves capitalist, white supremacist, settler-colonial and imperialist structures of power,” per Divest. The movement has attracted widespread support from McGill students and staff – but administration has made efforts to suppress student activism, often putting the safety of students at risk.
On March 11, four days into the protest, occupiers reported being “tormented with an extruciating [sic], high-pitch [sic], loud siren noise” issuing from loudspeakers in the Arts Building lobby. A student who measured the noise on their laptop found it exceeded 100 decibels, an amount health experts consider to be “very loud and dangerous to human hearing.” In a statement to the Daily, McGill administration reported that the alarm was triggered by mistake, but a comment from Divest McGill’s Reddit account claims that the alarm was triggered by a member of McGill staff who admitted to setting it off on purpose. The organization also reported that its members had been yelled at and that its posters had been pulled down.
This constitutes a clear effort by the McGill administration to crack down on a peaceful student protest. This is not the first time the university has made such an effort, and Divest McGill has not been its only victim. In November 2011, following a protest against tuition hikes held outside Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s office, McGill students occupied the office of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. According to a Daily article, there were “[r]eports of violence used against occupiers by McGill Security.” This violence escalated after McGill Security called the riot police, who attacked demonstrators with batons and sprayed them with pepper spray. Anna Hermanson, then a U2 McGill student, told the Daily that “[w]e were beaten in the ribs, in the back of the knees, on our shoulders, it was unbelievable.”
A few months later, during an occupation of the James Administration Building, student protesters were denied access to washrooms, lights and Internet were shut off, and adjustments to the heating and ventilation systems made the building “stuffy.” When students, who were told they would not be permitted re-entry to the building if they left to get food, resorted to lowering a bucket out of a window, McGill Security cut the rope to which the bucket was attached.
In the “Operating Procedures Regarding Demonstrations, Protests and Occupations on McGill University Campuses,” the university states that “tolerance is expected for the expression of dissent, and for a certain degree of inconvenience arising from the means by which dissenting opinions may be expressed.” The use of physical violence against demonstrators, the invitation of riot police to McGill campuses, the denied access to food and facilities during occupations, and the blaring of dangerously loud noises in protest spaces, however, are not acts of “tolerance.” The McGill administration is denying its students the right to peaceful protest. In the past, Principal Suzanne Fortier has been eager to defend professors at the University of Ottawa for their use of racial slurs, citing the right to academic freedom as her reason for doing so. The absence of support for Divest’s freedom of speech demonstrates a stark and unsurprising double standard for those protesting at McGill.
Protests are a crucial and effective means by which students can make their voices heard, draw their institutions into dialogue, and advocate for change. At the start of the current academic year, McGill students and staff gathered to demand stricter COVID-19 measures. Since then, we have seen McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights rally in support of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel; we have seen students march with Wet’suwet’en land defenders against the construction of TransCanada Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline; we have seen students protest against the New Vic project; and we have seen undergraduates at the School of Social Work, graduate students in the Faculty of Education, and Law students strike over the return to in-person learning. Last week, on March 18, the Association of McGill University Support Employees began a strike in condemnation of the university’s failure “to provide Floor Fellows with a decent rate of pay.” These movements ask for our support, but they also obligate the university to ensure that all participants are safe, that all are treated fairly and respectfully, and that all are able to express themselves without fear of consequences. McGill should express more support for students’ freedom of speech, rather than cherry-picking the most palatable forms of dissent to support.
Support Divest McGill and the #OccupyMcGill campaign by following the organization on social media, reading and sharing its publications, and attending #OccupyMcGill events in the Arts Building. Sign the Divest McGill change.org petition “in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and a call for McGill University to immediately divest from TC Energy Corporation.” Participate in the Milton Parc Citizen Committee’s email blast campaign directed toward McGill and the Quebec Government. In the past weeks, student activism has been increasingly visible on McGill’s campus – between the Arts Building occupation and activist activity on the Y, community mobilization continues to demonstrate that we are not #MadeByMcGill, we make McGill.