McGill encampment supporters reflect on the ups and downs of a week in protest

Friday was a sunny and calmer day at the pro-Palestinian encampment on McGill University's downtown Montreal campus. (Verity Stevenson/CBC - image credit)
Friday was a sunny and calmer day at the pro-Palestinian encampment on McGill University's downtown Montreal campus. (Verity Stevenson/CBC - image credit)

The sun was shining and the leaves were coming out of their buds Friday afternoon as a relative calm reigned over an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian student protesters on the front lawn of McGill University's downtown campus.

The day before had been misty and grey, and filled with relentless noise from opposing protests led on one side by the students and pro-Israel groups on the other. Chants on loudspeakers flooded the campus grounds, while upbeat music in Hebrew filled Sherbrooke Street.

"The calm today is reassuring, but it also highlights a lot of contrast from yesterday's protests," said Ghayas Osseiran, 24, who had studied politics, philosophy and economics at the university.

Osseiran, sitting on a blanket underneath a tree near the encampment on Friday, said he was a supporter of the student protesters. He was among many on campus trying to process the events of the past week.

"Morale is good. It's nice to have a calmer day," said Ari Nahman by text, a Concordia University religions and cultures student and Independent Jewish Voices member, who was among the first protesters to set up camp at McGill on Saturday.

Days earlier, Nahman had pointed out the dark circles around their eyes when asked by a CBC News reporter about the intermittent rain, lighting and thunder that punctuated several of the camp's days and nights.

The bad weather seemed to accompany other pressures the pro-Palestinian student protesters faced to leave: the university administration's staunch opposition to their presence from the start and an injunction request filed in Quebec Superior Court Tuesday on behalf of two McGill students accusing the group of antisemitism and asking a judge to prevent them from protesting near McGill buildings.

Several university encampments and occupations in the United States faced aggressive police intervention and mass arrests this week, including UCLA in Los Angeles, the University of Texas in Austin and Columbia University in New York, adding to apprehensions on the Montreal campus.

Verity Stevenson/CBC
Verity Stevenson/CBC

By Friday, some of the American education institutions had begun to show openness to encampment demands. Brown University, Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota all made commitments to discuss their investment policies in exchange for protesters to take down their camps.

Wednesday, McGill president Deep Saini offered to hold a forum to discuss students' demands, but was met with skepticism from protesters, who said they wouldn't budge until the university pulls investments in companies such as Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturer with direct ties to the Israel Defence Forces and Safran, a French air defence company.

But Mayada Elsabbagh, a McGill professor at the school's medical faculty who has been supporting the students' encampment, said she felt hopeful McGill would do more than it has in the past in response to similar demands — "especially after the success of the rejection of the injunction that happened in courts a few days ago, which demonstrated without doubt that this form of protest is both democratic, legal and should be welcomed in our institutions."

Movement tied to wider struggles

An event with performances and talks by academics and artists took place near the encampment around noon. Later, a workshop was held by the Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera, also known as the Mohawk Mothers, a group who has been calling on McGill to let them search for possible unmarked graves at a former Montreal hospital site the university now owns.

"I'm really touched and impressed by the students' ability to organize things on the fly," Elsabbagh said. "We, as activists, were not as well informed and eloquent, as what I'm seeing in this advocacy movement today."

Verity Stevenson/CBC
Verity Stevenson/CBC

Elsabbagh said this year's movement was linked to other global struggles, including climate change.

"People who are concerned with justice are essentially seeing a lot of symbolism and affinity and attachment, to what's happening with the genocide in Gaza right now," she said.

Kevin Yuen-Kit Lo, an assistant professor teaching design at Concordia, said he, too, had been involved in early 2000s activism for Palestinian rights and had noticed a broadening of the cause.

"I think it's a struggle that is obviously first and foremost about the Palestinians and their the right to land. But it's also reflecting on on the mechanisms of settler colonialism globally," he said.

Verity Stevenson/CBC
Verity Stevenson/CBC

Osseiran, the former McGill student, said he believes those struggles were reflected in the mood on the pro-Palestinian side of Thursday's opposing protests.

"We had a lot of people on on this side of the fence who have a lot of pain, a lot of anguish and disappointment in the institutions that are still investing in Israeli apartheid and the genocide in Gaza. And, we see a lot of that pain in the chants, while on the other side of the fence, there was a lot more, joy, which was sort of dystopian to see," Osseiran said.

'Dissonance' amid opposing protests

"There's a lot of dissonance between their celebration and the ongoing struggle that the Palestinians are resisting," he added.

Protesters on the pro-Israel side said their joy was about creating visibility for the Jewish community as pro-Palestinian encampments dominated this week's news cycle.

"We're not going to let one side take control of the narrative. The ultimate thing is that we're just here in peace," said Avishai Infeld, a former McGill student who helped organize the pro-Israel demonstration with Hillel Montreal. Though several people at the protest called for the encampment to be dismantled, Infeld said that wasn't his organization's goal.

One protester was less diplomatic. "I think they don't know s---. They say, 'Free, free Palestine;' other than that, they don't know anything," said Danni Morris, who said she had moved to Montreal from central Israel a year-and-a-half ago.

Morris said she was most concerned about the roughly 130 Israeli hostages remaining in Gaza.

After the Oct. 7 attack in Israel that officials there say killed 1,200, another 253 people were taken hostage. Slightly more than 100 hostages have been released, most as part of a November ceasefire deal.

Since October, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip, according to the Health Ministry there. Morris said she doesn't believe those numbers because they are published by Hamas.

"I'm thinking about my people, not theirs right now," she said at the protest on Thursday.