‘The Death of Student Space’

McGill Students Protest the Closing of the Arch Café

Clockwise from bottom left: A makeshift drum corps sounds off against McGill’s administration. Hundreds take to McGill’s front gates to protest the closure of McGill’s last student-run eatery. A student makes noise outside the university’s Leacock building during a Senate meeting. Photo Christopher Curtis
Photo Christopher Curtis
Photo Christopher Curtis

McGill students are buckling down in their fight to re-open the Arch Café.

On Sept. 22, hundreds took to the university’s downtown campus to protest the closure of the Architecture Café—McGill’s last student run eatery.

Wearing multi-coloured lab coats and hardhats, engineering students led protesters as they marched across campus and through McGill’s gated entrance where they were egged on by honking motorists.

“The Architecture Café held a special place in the hearts of architecture and engineering students, but also students at large,” said Alan Cyril, an executive on McGill’s Engineering Undergraduate Society.

Over the summer Morton Mendelson, McGill’s head of Student Life and Learning, decided to shut down the Arch Café without consulting any of the university’s student groups.

“The café was no longer financially viable,” said one McGill official. “As Professor Mendelson has said ‘we aren’t in the business of subsidizing lunch.’”

Despite this claim, Mendelson has yet to make any of the café’s financial records public.

The protest was the latest in a series of steps undertaken by students to persuade administration to reopen the café.

On Sept. 7, the Architecture Student Association and the EUS put forward a plan to re-open the café under both groups’ management. The proposal was rejected.

At a Sept. 13 meeting with Mendelson, Student Society of McGill President Zach Newburgh presented the administrator with a memo showing that 80 per cent of undergraduate architecture students are in favour of reopening the café.

“When I came out of the meeting […] I left with the understanding that [Mendelson] was going to reconsider his decision,” Newburgh told The ­­McGill Daily. “[Mendelson] said ‘I will consider this advice and reconsider.’”

Mendelson has since denied telling Newburgh he would reconsider his decision to close the Arch Café.

The work to re-open the café continued beyond the demonstration. Midnight Kitchen—a McGill student group that provides students with on-campus vegan meals—helped organize a strategizing session to discuss further pressure tactics on Sept. 27.

Protesters met outside McGill’s Leacock building, where the university’s student governing body was holding their first meeting of the fall semester. An improvised drum core banged wildly on their instruments as the crowd moved towards the MacDonald-Harrington building, site of the now defunct café.

“The closing of the Arch Café is basically the death of student space on campus,” said Sam Neylon, one of the protest’s organizers. “Corporatist groups like frosh have space set aside for them, and the school is beautified which is more a way to attract new students than to provide current students with a comfortable space where they can eat affordable meals.”

Most of McGill’s cafeterias are owned and operated by Aramark Canada, a food service company that has over 400,000 student clients across the country.

“Aramark has doubled prices at the nearest cafeteria [and] reduced portion sizes,” said Cyril. “We’re being gouged. But we’re fighting back. I’ve had teachers and even administrators come up to me and say ‘you’re doing a good job, keep it up.’”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 07, published September 28, 2010.