Dozens gathered in front of the Schulich School of Music on June 28 wielding signs, singing, and playing all manner of instruments. They were protesting McGill’s decision to close its Conservatory of Music at the end of the summer. McGill’s announcement, which came on June 20, cited high operational costs, a lack of space, and waning enrollment—worsened by the pandemic—as reasons for shutting down the program.
The conservatory, housed in the Schulich School of Music, is a community program that has offered music lessons to people of all ages in the greater Montreal area for more than 100 years. Students, teachers, and community activists fighting its closure argue that it plays a vital role in the community, and that McGill could be trying harder to keep it running.
The McGill Course Lecturers and Instructors Union (MCLIU) organized the June 28 rally and launched a petition to keep the doors of the conservatory open. MCLIU president Raad Jassim explained the union’s stance in an interview with The McGill Tribune.
“It’s a labour issue. That’s number one,” Jassim said. “We have 100 instructors who are going to be losing their jobs. It’s called, in [the] labour code, mass firing [….] And there are no good reasons given to the union, to the members, to shut it down.”
According to Jassim, other unions, such as the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) and the McGill University Non-Academic Staff Association (MUNASA), will also be impacted by the conservatory’s closure.
McGill’s claim that they do not have space to house the conservatory rings inaccurate to Jassim. He brought up the Royal Victoria Hospital—which is now under McGill’s control and sits empty, slated to undergo renovations for eventual use in 2028—as proof that enough space exists across McGill’s campus to continue the program. He further believes that the administration is prioritizing elite music education over community programming because it is more profitable.
“But is education only for money? Is our tax money only going to create money for the institute? These are the questions that we ask and [why] I have created a petition,” Jassim said.
Jennifer Bell, who taught at the conservatory for over 30 years, played the saxophone during the protest on June 28. A jazz coach, Bell described the unique nature of the conservatory and the diverse crowd that it draws in an interview with the Tribune.
“I don’t think there’s any other musical setting where you could have a group where a couple of the people are senior citizens [and] high school students,” Bell said. “We’ve had students in other faculties at McGill, we’ve had people who were […] doctors, lawyers, engineers, […] concierges, and garbage collectors [….] The diversity of the people that would come together in these groups is really quite incredible.”
Like Jassim, Bell believes that McGill is unwilling to develop a solution that could save the conservatory. Bell has also started the “Save McGill Conservatory of Music” Facebook group, at the request of a conservatory teacher, which has already amassed over 600 members. The page is used primarily to organize against the closure and to share testimonials about the conservatory’s positive impact as a creative outlet for the community.
Claire Loewen, a McGill media relations officer, wrote in an email to the Tribune that McGill sees the conservatory as economically unsustainable and that the decision to close it is final.
“In recent years, the Conservatory has faced a growing number of challenges as operational costs have increased. It should be noted that the Conservatory is self-funded and receives no government funding,” Loewen wrote. “The lack of reliably available space is also a challenge. As the Schulich School of Music continues to grow its University-level programs, these spaces are now at a critical premium [….] The Schulich School of Music will be forming a working group to look at sustainable ways of furthering our commitment to community engagement in the future.”