On Sunday, Nov. 12, thousands of activists filled Place Émilie-Gamelin for the “Large Demonstration Against Hate and Racism.” A McGill contingent, led by Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) External Connor Spencer, joined forces with a coalition of Montreal activist groups to protest hate and the far-right. SSMU Council endorsed Spencer’s—and McGill’s—involvement in the protest in an Oct. 12 motion. This decision should be commended, as it recognizes the increasing prevalence of discriminatory forces on and off campus, and helps fulfill the role that student government must play in promoting equality. Just recently, xenophobic posters promoting a white nationalist group appeared on McGill campus. Quebec’s Bill 62 is xenophobic legislation that stands to hinder Muslim women’s access to education and other public services. McGill is launching an investigation into anti-semitism on campus. There are students within the McGill community who feel silenced, targeted, and undermined by discrimination.
However, it is important to remember that mass demonstrations like this are only one of many different, valid, ways to confront hatred and racism. Participating in a march alone is not enough. Within SSMU and students’ scope of effective action, there’s a need for focused initiatives at a local level that promote inclusivity and equality on McGill campus. SSMU must actively seek relevant stakeholders’ input on how to better educate the McGill community on sensitive issues, and how to implement policy that recognizes and supports students’ varied experiences. This involves giving marginalized groups a stronger platform to share their voices.
On their website, Sunday’s protest organizers encouraged people to “take the streets […] to express [their] anger at racism, hatred, and the far-right.” These are very real threats—and people deserve to be angry. However, protests with such broad visions risk undermining the effectiveness of their activism. Dubbed online as a protest opposing racism, Islamophobia, colonialism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of hate—all of which are claimed to be related to capitalism and austerity—the “Demonstration Against Hate and Racism” lacked a coherent and effective goal for people to mobilize around. The protest’s messaging appeared to emphasize anger and opposition to the far-right writ large, more so than opposition to one particular discriminatory event.
The point of the “Demonstration Against Hate and Racism” was to be all-encompassing—that is, a resounding rejection of all discrimination encouraged by the far-right. While broad, societal-level strokes are laudable and important, they must not overshadow the need for concurrent work at a more focused, community level. McGill is SSMU’s domain. As such, it is on the local level where the Society and its members can have the most impact. Without discounting the symbolic value of SSMU participating in a city-wide protest, it is imperative that it carries the momentum from this rally to enact change at the local level—because this is where it is most desperately needed.
Moving forward, it is crucial for students and student leaders to understand the multiple channels for advocacy, activism, and solidarity. To effectively counter the far-right and other discriminatory groups, students must make use of all of them. That means responding at different times, in different ways.
Moreover, these channels must prioritize the voices that have been silenced by persistent hate. SSMU must seek input from those who are targeted, and ask how the McGill community can work together to make campus a safer place for everyone. By consulting the most important stakeholders to each issue, SSMU can continue to educate the McGill community. Workshops, speakers, and issue-specific, on-campus programming, such as the Quebec Public Interest Research Group's (QPIRG) Culture Shock and Social Justice Days, respond to racism in supportive, productive, and sensitive ways. While SSMU and its constituents should not be afraid to be ambitious in combatting racism on a broader scale, it is key to understand where the McGill community has the potential to make the most impact. That’s right here at McGill.