Jutras to investigate after riot squad clears protest outside James
By McGill Reporter Staff
In between the guttural chants and raucous cheers, the silence spoke volumes. Approximately 1,000 people were paying very close attention to speaker after speaker at a student-organized event Monday designed to let people tell their stories and voice their opinions about traumatic events of the week before.
The gathering in James Square (which the crowd urged be renamed Community Square) drew mostly students, but also a number of faculty and administrators, who listened to compelling personal accounts of what it was like to be herded from that same space the Thursday evening previous at the hands of the Montreal police riot squad.
A province-wide protest last Thursday against tuition-fee increases unleashed a chain of violent events that has left many in the University profoundly shaken. At the end of a Montreal protest march that drew between 20,000 and 30,000 people, mostly students, a number of protesters occupied the offices of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Provost Anthony Masi in the James Administration Building.
When they sent messages to people outside that they were being abused by Security staff, a crowd of protesters swelled outside James and clashed with police. The police called for back up, which arrived in the form of the riot squad, which cleared the protesters with pepper spray, tear gas, batons and shields.
Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, who was not at the University last Thursday night, attended part of the Monday gathering and listened to several people explaining why they felt suddenly vulnerable and afraid in what they thought was their own safe space, and what it felt like to be pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed, or whacked or prodded with a police truncheon.
The crowd also listened to pointed criticism of the University’s handling of the continuing MUNACA strike, about the actions of the University’s Security agents, and about Quebec’s planned increase in tuition fees.
“It was very important for me to hear this,” Munroe-Blum said in an interview later. “I understand that people have been hurt, they’re upset and they’re angry. And I take responsibility to find the means of restoring a broad sense that our campus is a safe place, that our University is a place that celebrates, fundamentally, our academic freedoms and freedom of speech; and to find better ways for us to embrace the differences that exist across our community.
“Of course, I won’t do that in a vacuum. I and many others are taking action now. I have launched the investigation [led by Dean of Law, Daniel Jutras], I am meeting with groups of students, faculty and staff, and I am meeting with Montreal’s Chief of Police. A team is working together to ensure we are providing effective support and communication to our students, and others, who were hurt in the events of Nov. 10.”
Student Society of McGill University President Maggie Knight had attended the anti-tuition protest and gone to the James Building on hearing an occupation was under way.
“Obviously [the events of Thursday] were shocking and disturbing,” she said. “So many students were hurt and traumatized – and other members of the McGill community as well. It is troubling that things escalated to that point on campus.”
Returning to the SSMU offices before the arrival of the riot police, Knight soon began receiving calls and text messages about clashes between protesters and police. “We helped
co-ordinate medical care for people using MSERT [McGill Students Emergency Response Team],” said Knight. “We also opened the office for people who were really shaken up and scared to give them a place where they could be warm and process their experience.”
Knight said Monday’s rally provided a forum for people to air their grievances while, hopefully, serving as a catalyst for improving the sense of unity on campus.
“[On Monday] there was a mixture of sadness, anger, frustration,” said Knight. “It was good to see so many different folks – students, staff and professors. And a lot of senior administrators were there which I think people appreciated. It was an unprecedented number of people to have in a public space at McGill to talk about important issues. It was a time to come together to mourn the events, express feelings and try to move forward and create something that is a lot better.”
On Friday, the day after the riot police were on campus, Munroe-Blum had already asked Jutras to conduct an investigation of the events and the University’s responses to them. His report, due Dec. 15, is to be made public.
But, as he made clear in a letter to the community on Tuesday, Jutras will not assign blame – to anyone. His report “will not include any nominative assessment of individual conduct or responsibility,” he wrote. “There is good reason for this. In a society governed by due process and the rule of law, the allocation of blame for wrongdoings of any sort is subject to strict procedural safeguards.”
It is impossible, he noted, to ensure such safeguards in the context of an investigation such as this.
The largely peaceful protest against next year’s planned tuition hikes that would see undergraduate tuition increase by $325 per year for the next five years ended in front of Premier Jean Charest’s office on McGill College Ave., directly across from the Roddick Gates. At the end of the event, lit flares, were flung at police.
Meanwhile, at about 3:45 p.m., a group of about 14 protesters, some of whom have since identified themselves as McGill students, entered the unlocked James Building and went up to the south end of the fifth floor, where Munroe-Blum and Masi have their offices.
A few of the protesters knocked on a locked glass door leading to Masi’s office area and when a staff member opened to ask them what they wanted, they and other protesters pushed past and into the office area, declaring that a “peaceful occupation” was under way. Some of the protesters made their way into Munroe-Blum’s private office. Others remained in the outer reception area, blocking doors that lead to the rest of the floor, as well as the exit to the stairwell.
Some wore bandanas as masks and had hoods pulled low over their foreheads from time to time.
Attempts by other staffers from the fifth floor to gain access to the reception area proved fruitless. Someone called McGill’s Security service. Security agents used another door to make their way to the suite of offices and persuaded some of the protesters to return to the reception area. Others, who were in Munroe-Blum’s office, refused to leave and were carried out, under protest, by Security agents and left in the reception area, where they sat on the floor.
When some employees tried to leave the building, another group of protesters entered at the second floor door and occupied a portion of the second floor.
Reactions to the events vary.
For Liisa Stephenson, Planning and Projects Officer in the Principal’s office, Nov. 10 is a day she’ll always remember. Stephenson was on the fifth floor when the 14 occupiers came in.
“It was terrifying,” said Stephenson “We didn’t know who they were or what they wanted and suddenly we confronted with individuals wearing bandanas over their faces and hoods and backpacks yelling and pushing and taking over our workspaces – it was really frightening.
“We felt intimidated and threatened by the occupiers. Not just by the way they were dressed but also by the way they behaved. Two of my colleagues were pushed aside by the occupiers who were yelling almost the entire time and screaming profanities at security personnel. We [the staff members] don’t feel like this was the peaceful protest that the occupiers have tried to portray in the media.”
Some of the occupiers say they suffered rough treatment at the hands of Security staff.
In an open letter published in The McGill Daily, the occupiers recount entering the James Building and climbing to Munroe-Blum’s fifth-floor office, “encountering no obstacles all the way to her front door. We knew her receptionist’s desk would be vacant because she’s on strike.
“We knocked on the door and announced that this was a non-violent occupation. Using our feet and chests to stop the slamming door, we moved ourselves in.
“At no point did we ever threaten, injure, or intimidate anyone. Everything you have heard about our violence is a lie. We asked those there to leave or stay, as they saw fit…
“We stress that the only aggression that occurred on the fifth floor of the James Administration building was by security personnel and directed at us. It was because of our non-violence that we were then so easily beaten and corralled by McGill Security.”
While the crowd outside grew, Montreal police were informed of the occupation and a few in the crowd began to clash with other Montreal police officers, who had arrived on bicycles.
These clashes escalated, according to Montreal police spokesperson Ian Lafrenière, who was quoted in local media as saying the confrontation was “intense and nasty.” “There were many distress calls from officers,” The Gazette quoted Lafrenière as saying, as officers were pelted with objects.
Lafrenière maintained the officers used their bicycles to protect themselves; a number of protesters claim the police used their bikes as weapons against the crowd. According to Lafrenière, the police on bikes called for backup. Dozens of riot police marched into James Square and began herding protesters out with shields and batons. They used tear gas and pepper spray and a number of protesters were pushed to the ground and hit with batons. Some members of the McGill community exiting buildings or walking through campus who were unaware of the protest were caught up in the tumult.
Eventually, the protesters were pushed off campus through the Milton Gates.
Back on the fifth floor, Masi and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson and the occupiers agreed on a deal: the students would leave with guarantees there would be no action – criminal or disciplinary – against them and they would not have to identify themselves to police. Masi and Mendelson walked the protestors out of the building.
The next day, a crowd of about 100 members of the McGill community gathered outside the now-locked James Building, demanding to be let in to present a letter to Munroe-Blum that contained a number of demands, including the resignations of anyone involved in calling Montreal police on to the campus. Eventually, two people, one student and one professor, met the Principal and presented the letter late in the day. The protest, which included blocking exits to the building, then dissipated.