Montreal

Anger, dismay at McGill as board of governors blocks racial justice motion

McGill University’s board of governors swatted down a motion endorsing racial justice last month, angering staff and student groups who have been pushing the school to more decisively address racism on campus.

Students, staff say board has habit of finding excuses to ignore equity issues

The motion called on the school to issue a written statement on equity and inclusiveness to mark its 200th anniversary. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

McGill University's board of governors swatted down a motion endorsing racial justice last month, angering staff and student groups who have been pushing the school to more decisively address racism on campus.

The motion was drafted by Ehab Lotayef, a board member at the time, in consultation with by more than a dozen groups, including the major student societies and associations representing Muslim and Black students.

It also had the backing of Charles Taylor, the eminent philosopher and one of the university's best-known professors.

The motion called on the school to issue a written statement on equity and inclusiveness to mark its 200th anniversary.

It also called for that statement to be engraved on a plaque that would be located near the Roddick Gates, or close to the statue of university founder James McGill, who owned at least five slaves of Indigenous or African descent.

Lotayef's goal was to have the plaque read, in part: "We acknowledge the mistakes of the past and our historical relationship to colonization and enslavement, and commit to being a place that celebrates and empowers diversity in everyday life, activities and governance."

The motion called for a racial equity statement to be engraved on a plaque that would be located near the Roddick Gates. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

In early April, Lotayef signalled he wanted to table and debate the motion at a board meeting later that month.

But he was told by board chair Ram Panda the motion was "ill-advised" because other administrative bodies at the university hadn't been consulted beforehand, according to an email chain shared with CBC News.

Following that decision, Lotayef resigned from the board in protest. He had been a member since 2018.

"My presence on the board is meaningless if I cannot exercise my rights," Lotayef, an IT manager at the university, told CBC News. "The only thing that's worse than a lack of democracy is the presence of artificial democracy."

A spokesperson for the university said Panda was not available to answer questions from CBC News.

A recurring problem, student groups say

Fanta Ly, co-president of the Black Law Students' Association of McGill, said the board's decision capped off a year of frustration with the university's efforts to deal with racism.

Though the university has committed to the principles of anti-racism, Ly said procedural points were often used by administrators to avoid addressing concerns of Black students.

The blocked equity motion is part of this larger problem, she said, adding: "the lack of coherence is really insulting and it's not acceptable."

Both the undergraduate and graduate student societies endorsed the motion. In a statement, the undergraduate student society, which represents nearly 30,000 students, said the incident was "only the latest iteration of the University's systematic dismissal of equity initiatives."

The statement also said McGill's governing bodies have repeatedly refused to consider equity motions put forth by students and staff, often on technical or procedural grounds.

"These apparently inexcusable technicalities have included everything from broken hyperlinks and simple syntax errors to non-conformity with the status quo," the statement said.

Last summer, student groups asked the university to remove a statue of its founder, James McGill, a slave owner. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A representative of the Post-Graduate Students' Society, Babatunde Alli, said the board's decision "sends out the wrong message."

Several McGill employee unions also endorsed the motion and were disappointed to see the board strike it down before it could be debated.

"It's a big deal. It was an important statement," said Thomas Chalmers, president of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association, a union of 1,700 support workers.

"A long list of people asked the board to consider the motion. And they found a mechanism not to do that."

As far as Chalmers is concerned, the board's refusal is indicative of the university's reluctance to consult with students and staff on major issues.

Another union leader who backed the motion, Sean Cory, said he wasn't surprised the board sought to avoid the issue altogether. "They are a bit conservative and somewhat behind the times," said Cory, who represents a union of research assistants and associates.

"That statement was trying to shift McGill's policies to take into account what's been happening in the world."

Top-down approach criticized

In a written statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the university said the motion was unnecessary because the board had passed an equity motion last year and is already implementing a plan to address anti-Black racism.

"McGill University recognizes that the wealth leading to its establishment was derived, in part, from James McGill's engagement in the colonial economic system and the transatlantic slave trade," the statement said.

McGill University is promising to better address anti-Black racism but a statue of James McGill, who owned slaves, will remain near the entrance of the campus, at least for now. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The university also objected to complaints its board of directors was unwilling to consider motions, and concerns, from students and staff.

"Motions are presented regularly to the Board and come from a variety of sources. Moreover, the Board also meets with the community twice per year allowing members of the community to ask questions and voice opinions," McGill said in a follow-up statement.

But Ly said the school's anti-racism plan was drafted without sufficient consultation with Black student groups, and failed to implement one of their key demands: an independent office to investigate allegations of discrimination.

"The university administration prefers things to come from the top down," said Lotayef. "They don't want to be bound or pressured by something that comes from the grassroots."


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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