A subtle murmur of anticipation filled the impending crowd on Wednesday, October 25 at approximately 1:30 PM, as people, mainly students, gathered at the Y-intersection to join in on the walkout to support Palestine. News of this event had spread across social media sites like wildfire, with five different schools across Montreal—McGill, Concordia, UQAM, UDEM, and Dawson—organizing independent demonstrations with the intent of gathering participants to partake in the protest by walking out of class. Walkouts have historically been implemented as a form of protest, allowing students to exercise their choice to stand up for issues they strongly believe in. This time, university students across Canada and the United States participated in the walkout, with over 100 different student-run organizations displaying their solidarity. Groups that operate in both countries, such as the Palestinian Youth Movement, National Students for Justice in Palestine, and Muslim Student Associations, were involved in planning these widespread demonstrations. In Montreal, however, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) played the largest role in setting this plan into motion between the various educational institutions.
Interspersed within chants were powerful descriptions of the tragedies ensuing within Gaza, notably the widespread loss of Palestinian children, depleted resources for civilians, and families losing their homes due to bombings. The speakers articulated their dismay before the crowd, standing beside a life-sized Palestinian flag which represented in a physical form the sheer scope of the crisis. After each speech, the crowd broke out into passionate chanting, with phrases such as “McGill, McGill take a stand,” before proceeding with, “Don’t support stolen land!,” or “From the River to the Sea,” with which the crowd responded, “Palestine will be free!” Members of the Palestinian Youth Movement outlined their purpose for instigating the North American-based walkout through three main goals: A demand to end “Israel’s siege on Gaza, which begins with ending Israel’s genocidal bombardment on Gaza through an immediate ceasefire and which continues through lifting Israel’s land, air, and sea blockade on Gaza.” Secondly, the coalition of organizations also seeks an “end to US military funding to Israel.” Their last request is specific to universities, declaring that “we demand our universities fully divest from weapons corporations which arm Israel’s occupation and genocide in Gaza.”
This final statement is so salient within the politics of higher education, as they are oftentimes significant funders for corporations that contribute to humanitarian injustices, or in the current climate, supporting Israel in their bombardment of Gaza. There have been tensions at McGill in previous years regarding the Palestine Solidarity Policy, which aimed to end “all corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.” When the agreement was proposed by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), McGill administration threatened to withhold funding from the organization by claiming that this policy violated the SSMU’s constitution. Ultimately the policy was not adopted by the SSMU, but remains a critical issue among campus life as students have expressed how they find the institution to be “complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.”
That Wednesday afternoon marked an intersection of student and staff efforts, with individuals from all facets of academic learning showing up, asserting their support, and speaking out against the Israeli state’s destruction in Palestine through tank invasions and missile strikes. The walkout had speakers from SPHR and Socialist Fightback, a Marxist alliance, each informing the crowd about the atrocities being perpetrated overseas, and how efforts to stop it are in the hands of the public.
During a time when public opinion is so divided, student activists find themselves at the intersection of significant polarization. Across media outlets, there has been a surge in Islamophobia and antisemitism, which exacerbates the divide. When asked about why unity is so dire amid the present circumstances, a student revealed to The Daily, “Well I think it’s obvious that there’s a genocide happening, and I think the whole focus of this issue is one-sided. There’s always that classic question: ‘Do you condemn Hamas?’ any time a Palestinian speaks up.”
Such a complex history requires people from all walks of life to confront previous misconceptions and knowledge about the context behind the situation in Palestine. “It started with decades upon decades of occupation, of blatant apartheid rules, just a complete degradation of Palestinian people and I think it’s important that we recognize that that’s the root issue of the genocide that’s going on in Gaza right now. It didn’t just happen in a vacuum, it happened for a reason,” the aforementioned student concluded.
Throughout the demonstration, many representatives tried to bring about an emphasis on the impact of student voices for social causes. Students have historically been at the forefront of both national and international movements, such as the opposition to the American occupation of Vietnam and South African apartheid, which McGill students actively advocated against throughout the 80s and 90s.
Michelle Hartman, a professor of Arabic Literature within the Islamic Studies department of McGill University, also delivered many reverberating messages on behalf of the campus community.
“I’m standing here now because the students called for this, the students and the youth of McGill, of Montreal, but not just McGill and Montreal—Concordia, Université de Montréal, UQAM, and Dawson,” she said. “We are together, and are doing this together. We are a part of a global movement.” Her words instilled an attitude of empowerment within students that afternoon, drawing emphasis to how standing against oppressive forces as such will be imprinted in history.
After an hour of standing at the foot of the Y-intersection, the crowd shifted its center towards the Arts Building to join forces with the Mohawk Mothers, who were previously leading a teach-in about the ongoing work at the Royal Victoria Hospital that day. Hartman reiterated that the conjoined efforts for the liberation of Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island and the liberation of Palestinians are both struggles against ongoing settler-colonial ideology. It is a fight against oppressors, against the nations and governments who seek power while silencing those who stand in their way. This common struggle for liberation made the encounter with the Mohawk Mothers resonate amongst listeners, making each chant and cheer grow louder.
As the walkout persisted, protestors moved to their final destination and engaged in a sit-in before the James Administration building. Since a key aim of the protest was to reinforce how universities must be held accountable for their support towards Israel, this final shift was critical to catch the attention of those working for the administration. The marchers continued their chants with fuller force, driven by a passion to make their beliefs heard by the heads of the university. Although these efforts reverberated through the campus in full force that day, the energy remains strong across Montreal, as protests for Palestine continue to be organized almost daily.