Students’ Society of McGill organizes protest against ‘unsafe and inaccessible’ return to campus

Carol E. Corker

Thousands of students and staff are returning to McGill University’s campus Wednesday amid growing controversy over the school’s refusal to require proof of vaccination to be on campus.

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Thousands of students and staff are returning to McGill University‘s campus Wednesday amid growing controversy over the school’s refusal to require proof of vaccination to be on campus.

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But instead of heading back to class, some will be attending a demonstration led by the Students’ Society of McGill (SSMU) to protest what it is calling an unsafe and inaccessible return to in-person schooling for many.

“McGill is arguing that a return to campus is the best thing, and we totally agree — I can’t wait to be back on campus, personally, I know a million people who can’t wait either,” SSMU Vice-President (External Affairs) Sacha Delouvrier told the Montreal Gazette Tuesday. “I just need to know that all students feel safe when they return to campus.”

Earlier this month, the school said it does not have the authority to require proof of vaccination, but its own law professors disagree, and many of its medical experts have called for the measure to be implemented. In a letter to the school administration, law professors argued McGill not only has authority to require proof of vaccination, but also has a legal responsibility to do so.

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“But yet the administration continues to say that it doesn’t (have the authority),” said Richard Gold, a professor in the faculty of law and faculty of medicine at McGill University. “They refuse to give an explanation, they refuse to provide any legal opinion that says they can’t do it, and nobody knows why.”

Several universities outside Quebec have implemented vaccine mandates over the past few months. At a news conference Tuesday, public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda wouldn’t say whether the government has specifically told Quebec universities and CEGEPs not to ask for proof, but he did say the measure isn’t being recommended.

“For essential things like going to work, like going to the store to get food … you need to go, it’s not going to the cinema or something else,” he said. “Going to school is an essential thing.”

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Gold said he doubts the decision is coming from the Quebec government.

“We think it’s coming from McGill,” he said. “If Quebec were making them do this, why isn’t someone saying that? They can’t (do that), they don’t have the legal authority. So, we don’t know why.”

Another issue drawing criticism of McGill of late is a letter to faculty from the school’s provost, which says only professors with medical certificates will be allowed to teach remotely.

“The following are not valid reasons for granting permission to teach remotely: fear about campus safety, residing in another jurisdiction, or concern about relatives who might be at heightened risk or exposure to COVID-19, including those living under the same roof,” the letter says.

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“How we teach has always been — and I’ve been there for 20 years — a question for the instructors,” Gold said. “Our statute — which is the highest authority — gives that function to the faculty.”

Delouvrier said the provost’s letter came as a surprise to him, too.

“I am disgusted, to say the least,” he said. “For someone to be that insensitive in a school that’s supposed to be inclusive, I was utterly shocked when I saw that memo.”

Through Wednedsay’s protest, which will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the SSMU hopes to gain more understanding from McGill after spending the summer “trying to advocate for better accommodations for students,” Delouvrier said.

The group is pushing, among other things, for remote learning for vulnerable students and international students stuck abroad, and for a vaccine mandate that is “comprehensive and equitable.”

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“The thing is, a vaccine mandate can be interpreted as forcing everyone to get vaccinated otherwise they can’t come (to campus), and that’s not what we want at all,” Delouvrier said. “We would like to ask McGill to provide, on multiple campus locations, frequent testing opportunities for students who don’t want to get vaccinated, or cannot.”

McGill University did not respond to the Montreal Gazette’s request for comment.

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