The student Intifada rises at Montréal universities – Canadian Dimension

CD reports from the McGill Palestine solidarity encampment

Andrea Levy and André Frappier / May 3, 2024

Scenes from inside the pro-Palestine student encampment on the grounds of McGill University’s downtown campus, Montréal, May 1, 2024. Photo by Andrea Levy.

Students from all four Montréal universities came together over the last week to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people and pressure their institutions to cut ties with Israel. Following the lead of the camps protests in the United States, they set up an encampment on the grounds of McGill University on April 27, calling for a ceasefire and demanding that Montréal’s halls of higher learning disclose their investments in companies complicit with the genocide in Palestine and divest from those companies, in addition to cutting ties with Israeli academic institutions.

In the specific case of McGill University, two student groups, McGill Hunger Strike for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine, created a dataset of McGill’s investments in companies with links to the State of Israel. They found that “as of December 31, 2023, McGill University held approximately $74 million in direct investments and $5.5 million in undisclosed investments in companies complicit in upholding the apartheid regime of Israel and financing its genocide.”

McGill students have pointed out to the media that there is a proud precedent for divestment at McGill, as it was the first Canadian university to divest from its holdings in apartheid South Africa in November 1985.

In December 2023 it announced it would divest from all direct holdings in the Carbon Underground 200, that is the top 100 public coal companies globally and the top 100 public oil and gas companies globally.

Safa, a graduate student at the Université du Québec a Montréal (UQAM) who is participating in the McGill campus protest, pointed out that the call for divestment is not new to Montréal universities and that while the wave of US campus protest in solidarity with Palestine certainly had an influence on the establishment of the encampment at McGill, students there but also at UQAM and Concordia University have been organizing around BDS at Québec universities for decades.

“Last month, UQAM became the first university in Canada at which all the student unions voted to adopt a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) mandate against Israel,” Safa said, noting that organizers are now seeking to win support for an academic boycott from various university faculties. Safa stressed that it’s a tougher battle at McGill, which has particularly strong ties with Israel and where the administration has consistently refused to listen to the students or work to find common ground.

Asked about the reaction from students, faculty and the public to the encampment at McGill, Safa said she has been happily surprised by the support shown to the protestors. “There have been so many donations of food, clothing and supplies that the organizers have been redistributing the surplus to people in need outside the campus,” she mentioned.

Nevertheless, from the start, the peaceful encampment at McGill has been under fire from the administration and attacked by students unsympathetic to the protest. Two such students sought an injunction that would have forced all protests to take place at a distance of more than 100 metres from any of the 154 McGill buildings, alleging that the protestors made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. On May 1, the request for the injunction was rejected by Superior Court judge Chantal Masse. As the Montréal French language daily Le Devoir reported, in the course of her judgement Masse said that the protestors in the encampment were illegally occupying McGill grounds but that she did not see any urgent need to dismantle the encampment since classes an exams were not being disrupted and access to buildings was not being blocked.

But the university’s administration, led by President and Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini, has been demanding that the encampment be dismantled and tried to involve the police, who responded that protest action was a civil not a criminal matter. However, nearly a week in to the protest, Québec Premier Francois Legault of the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec, intervened, asking the police to dismantle the encampment, which he called illegal.

The protesting students have the support of more than a few faculty members, again both at McGill University itself and other Montréal universities. While visiting the encampment, we spoke to Rula Jurdi Abisaab, Professor of Islamic History at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies. She noted that she has been committed to the guidelines of BDS since 2005, when Palestinian civil society appealed to the international community to boycott Israel. As a professor the academic boycott was a logical focus for her. She was not alone in this.

“Professors and culture workers have found it very important to work for a boycott of Israeli institutions that operate in complicity with economic and military organizations that normalize the colonialist occupation or produce knowledge to justify the occupation and colonization,” Abisaab said. She pointed out that, in face of the genocide that has killed 37,000 Palestinians to date, students have been mobilizing more intensely around the goals of BDS, and to examine the university’s ties to Israeli companies and institutions, affirming that “our job here as professors, at McGill or Concordia, is to support our students who have been at the forefront of this movement.” She said that many of her colleagues are very supportive even if they don’t come out to the encampment.

Asked about the how McGill’s administration is reacting to the encampment and to faculty members who express their solidarity with the students, Abisaab emphasized the tradition of democracy in Canada that she hopes the administration will uphold.

“These sites and workshops on the campus are sites for developing knowledge; they are sites of rising awareness, teaching, and expertise,” said Abisaab. “We know that dissent and civil disobedience are very important for developing the kind of knowledge that will lead us to a more just society, the kind of society we aspire to live in. I don’t think that the McGill administration, even if it is unhappy, can claim that what the students are doing or what faculty members who support them are doing is sabotaging or undermining the foundation of this institution,” she said.

“I think they will never follow the example of US universities,” she continued. “What happened at Columbia and at Emery University in Atlanta is shameful and we stand against it. My colleagues and I at McGill and other institutions have been very clear in joint and individual statements that we will not stand against the students, and we will oppose any militarization of the campus,” Abisaab affirmed.

“Violent repression would be a very wrong move,” she added. “It would be a mistake for administrators to put their heads in the sand and underestimate the strength and patience of this movement. They need to listen to and engage with the students. Those students will continue to demonstrate peacefully; they have learned perseverance; they are very well organized, and they are quite inspiring,” she said.

On Thursday, May 2, a pro-Israel counter demonstration took place near the encampment, organized by mainstream Jewish groups. However, there is also a contingent of Jewish students and supporters within the encampment.

CD spoke to one of their number, a McGill undergrad who identified herself as Robin (not her real name). Asked about her involvement, she responded, “We are a very diverse set of students, profs, alumni, Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim people all coming together under this umbrella for Palestinian liberation.” “As a Jew,” she continued, “I thought it was incredibly important to be so actively involved. You know, you grow up with this Zionist propaganda, this brainwashing from a very young age. You have to go through a process of unlearning and then it’s crucial to try and share that with others.”

She said that the reaction to her involvement among her Jewish friends has been a mixed bag. Not everyone has been supportive. “On the flip side” she remarked, “I’ve met some of the most incredible people through this political activism and it has had a real impact to meet people whose goals and values align so deeply with my own.”

Robin also has friends of friends who have been active at Columbia for a few years and have been involved in the encampment there. She was optimistic about the protest spreading in the rest of Canada and had a little advice to share: “Make your voices heard,” she urged. “Your university will not listen to you unless you push forward with these movements. Unless you are so vocal that they can’t ignore it. And I’m so excited for students all over Canada to align in solidarity with the Palestinian Liberation Movement.”