To most McGill students, the annual return to campus after the winter break usually conjures images of the university’s vibrant activist community. From flyers passed out during the Change The Name campaign to Divest McGill’s weekly demonstrations outside of the Arts building, it was hard to miss the advocacy taking place at McGill. Like with most things students are familiar with, the pandemic has thrown a wrench in these organizations’ ability to raise awareness and promote change in the ways they once would. But this does not mean that their work has stopped—from #TakeJamesMcGillDown, to newer initiatives like Meals for Milton-Parc and Divest McGill’s Metro boycott, students continue to mobilize for a range of causes in spite of the circumstances. Students should make an effort to remain aware of advocacy work in the community and get involved where they can.
For organizations like Divest McGill, which pressures the McGill administration to divest from fossil fuels, remote learning could have meant that there were seemingly fewer ways to hold the university accountable. In this context, the organization’s Metro boycott is a somewhat innovative tactic. The vice-chair of McGill’s Board of Governors, Maryse Bertrand, also sits on the Metro grocery store chain’s Board of Directors and, according to Divest, holds a $120,000 annual retainer. The idea is to “follow the money,” threatening Bertrand’s financial interests and pushing her to change her position on divesting from fossil fuels. According to Divest McGill, the continued lack of action on the administration’s part means that it is past time for using moral arguments to make their case. It is once again telling of McGill’s priorities that a movement as popular as Divest McGill must resort to an indirect boycott in the face of the administration’s continued negligence.
The tactic may not be perfect—boycotts can be limited in their effectiveness and fail to take into consideration that their demands can only be fulfilled by those who are privileged enough to be able to grocery shop elsewhere. Additionally, adapting individual lifestyle habits in order to participate in a boycott during a pandemic is not always an accessible option. However, students who have the option to visit local—and often more affordable—grocers like Segal’s can do so to send a message. The initiative signals a creative shift away from usual tactics like protests and instead harnesses students’ buying power. Many can easily participate on their own time without physically gathering with others and risking their safety to demonstrate.
However, student initiatives cannot work without sustained engagement and support. A key part of ensuring the success of pandemic-era organizing is raising awareness, which is often done through social media. Student organizers can look to Meals for Milton-Parc, an initiative launched by McGill students that aims to provide meals and care packages for local unhoused populations, for inspiration. Their social media presence has increased student awareness, funding, and volunteer support. Similarly, the #TakeJamesDown movement had a strong online presence that helped engage people with the cause. Social media is a complicated tool, as relying on awareness alone can risk being performative and inhibit substantive change. But, if wielded correctly, social media can amplify a movement, especially during the pandemic.
Just as organizations must diversify their tactics, student supporters must make an effort to seek out ongoing initiatives to get involved with and share with their communities. While student movements, and even certain issues themselves, can seem less pressing amidst a universally difficult and emotionally taxing period of our lives, these campaigns need sustained support and resources. McGill and government administrations should not use the current crisis as an excuse to sweep the needs of their students and citizens under the rug.