Mayhem at McGill
Building Occupation Ends in Violence for Those Outside
While the Nov. 10 Day of Action march wound its way through Montreal’s downtown, action of a different sort was developing on the McGill University campus.
Tear gas, pepper spray and other physical tactics were used by members of the Service Policière de la Ville de Montréal during a several-hour-long occupation of the James Administration Building, leading to allegations of police brutality.
At around 3:45 p.m., 14 students entered the building, which houses the academic offices. Once inside, they made their way to the fifth-floor office of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, hanging a banner from the window reading “10 NOV – OCCUPONS MCGILL!”
When security approached, some left the office for the reception area. Those who refused to leave were removed by security—via excessive force, according to the students.
While the Day of Action was exclusively about the proposed provincial $1,625 per year tuition hike, the students in the James Building had additional concerns.
They said they were fighting corporate dominance of the institution, a lack of student and faculty representation in the school Senate and Board of Governors, and the school’s drawn-out fight with their striking non-faculty employees.
In a document entitled “Letter from the Fifth Floor Occupiers,” the group denied accusations that they had pushed staff members in the building, saying that the only violence that occurred was on the part of McGill security personnel.
“At no point did we ever threaten, injure, or intimidate anyone,” the letter stated. “Everything you have heard about our violence is a lie.”
In a message posted on McGill’s website, Munroe-Blum said that employees were prevented from leaving the building.
The confrontation ended after a meeting between the occupiers and Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson. It was agreed that all involved would be given amnesty by the school, including not having any legal charges pressed.
While the occupiers avoided the riot cops outside, others on campus were not so lucky, including some who had wandered over from the Day of Action protest outside the nearby office of Premier Jean Charest.
Most of the marchers had dispersed, but some made their way onto the campus, where they were soon met by riot police. The SPVM had been called by McGill security. While only four officers were dispatched originally, they were soon followed by several dozen bicycle police, and then over 100 officers in riot gear.
Mendelson told The McGill Daily that the riot squad had been called in by their colleagues, and not by the university. Four people were arrested, including two individuals confirmed to be McGill students. The arrests weren’t the only fallout, however.
“I got a text saying that the James building was being occupied,” said McGill graduate Sasha Dyck. “I came down, I joined in and I was very surprised to see police in full riot gear on my campus, and all of a sudden I got pepper sprayed in the face.”
“Then one cop took out his spray and sprayed it near me. They wouldn’t let me into this building. I said, ‘This is my building, let me the hell in.’ They wouldn’t let me until I pushed through, and then one [officer] was taunting me to come back out, because he had his pepper spray out.” – McGill student Josh Redel
The McConnell Building, which is located close to the James Building and is situated near the school’s entrance on University St., was flooded with students seeking relief from the pepper spray. Dyck helped one student who had been sprayed near the James building flush his eyes out with water from a fountain.
“I noted that we had pushed them back, they actually came back further, and then I saw this guy get pepper sprayed right in front of me,” he said, adding police had tossed at least one flash-bang grenade at the students.
Many other students on the scene were just as incredulous, some of whom were not part of the march or occupation. Josh Redel is the head of McGill’s Engineering Undergraduate Society, and got into a confrontation with several members of the police force outside the McConnell Building.
“This is where [the Society’s offices] are, I have an event going on downstairs, and our offices are down there,” he said.
“It’s inappropriate that there’s innocent people literally walking by trying to go to class, getting beaten with bikes [and pepper spray]. I yelled at them to get off our campus, which probably wasn’t the smart thing to do, and they started hitting me with the back of their bikes.
“Then one cop took out his spray and sprayed it near me. They wouldn’t let me into this building. I said, ‘This is my building, let me the hell in.’ They wouldn’t let me until I pushed through, and then one [officer] was taunting me to come back out, because he had his pepper spray out.”
Student Society of McGill University President Maggie Knight said police blocked off some buildings in the area, and they were not letting people in or out.
“There was a lockdown on a lot of the buildings around [the James Building], including the major engineering and arts buildings,” she said.
“We had to help coordinate people getting the medical attention they needed for pepper spray, and trying to make everybody who has any physical injuries gets the help they need.”
In her letter, Munroe-Blum tried to distance the university from any violence on the part of the police, saying, “The situation outside, and the presence of the riot squad, which dispersed the protesters by its usual means, was entirely directed by the Montreal police service.”
However, in a letter to the administration written by the McGill Faculty Labor Action Group, and delivered by its members and students on Nov. 11, the group accused the university of fostering a hostile environment that makes it complicit in the actions of the SPVM.
“We see these events as yet another move this academic year by the McGill administration that fundamentally dismantles the University as a safe space for non-violence, democratic practices and intellectual debate and that undermines academic integrity, freedom and scholarship.
“They follow on the treatment of the MUNACA strike and its supporters amongst workers, students and professors.”
The letter went on to call for an inquiry into the incident, “Formal University and criminal reporting procedures for all faculty and students abused by McGill security and police,” as well as the resignations of and legal action against members of the McGill administration who had approved the SPVM’s presence.
Munroe-Blum promised a review of the incident, to be conducted by McGill Faculty of Law Dean Daniel Jutras.