The McGill encampment is still standing. Past Montreal student protests help explain why

Past crackdowns led to reputational hits and public apologies for the universities involved — and, in one case, millions of dollars in payouts by the city.

Violent police intervention in 2011 'left wounds' on campus, says report

Tents are surrounded by fencing with banners that say Free Palestine.
Pro-Palestinian activists have spent a week at their encampment on McGill University's downtown Montreal campus. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

It's been one week since pro-Palestinian students and protesters set up camp on McGill University's lawn.

Since then, McGill called on police for help, but police said no crime was being committed. Then, a Quebec judge rejected a request for an injunction that would have forced the protesters to leave.

With mass arrests and dismantling of similar encampments in the United States, many are wondering how and when the McGill encampment will end.

Student occupations aren't new at Montreal's English institutions: McGill and Concordia University. Two famous instances include the 1969 Sir George Williams affair, also known as the computer riots, and the occupation of McGill's administration building during tuition protests a decade ago. In both cases, riot police engaged in a violent crackdown on students.

Those crackdowns led to reputational hits and public apologies for the universities — and, after the tuition strike, millions of dollars in payouts by the city. So a look at what happened could shed light on whether history will repeat itself, or if these institutions will continue with a more cautious approach.

Computer centre riot

The computer riots started in response to racism experienced by West Indian students at the hands of a white biology professor, Perry Anderson.

A group of students occupied Sir George Williams University's computer room that, at the time, included computers about the size of refrigerators. The occupation lasted more than two weeks and ended with riot police storming the building and arresting 97 people. Some were given prison sentences ranging from two weeks to three years. Others were fined.

WATCH | Archive footage of the 1969 Computer Riots: 

Inside the 1969 Sir George Williams student protest

55 years ago
Duration 8:41
Black students occupy a computer centre to protest discrimination at a Montreal university. Aired on Feb. 2, 1969 on CBC-TV's The Way It Is.

Those familiar with the story remember the images of punch cards fluttering to the street below, a giant smashed computer and smoke billowing from the ninth floor of what is now Concordia's Hall Building.

In a retrospective piece written on the event's 50th anniversary, Rodney John, one of the protesters, recalled how the university failed to negotiate with the students.

"We were fighting a battle we could not win," he wrote. "The university had no mechanism for dealing with the issues we handed them and, as we were minorities, their position was that we had no rights that they were obliged to respect."

Photos of riot police on campus created a stir and shifted the university's reputation. Five years later, it merged with Loyola College and rebranded as Concordia University. In 2022, Concordia officially apologized for its role in the institutional racism that triggered the riots.

That wasn't the last time riot police would end up on a Montreal university campus in response to an occupation.

James Administration Building occupation

In the fall of 2011, the seeds of the movement that would become Maple Spring were planted. The government had announced major tuition hikes, triggering mass protests across the province.

A day of action was planned for Nov. 10, with a large protest that ended at McGill's downtown campus. A group of 14 students then ran into the fifth floor of the James Administration Building, barricading themselves in as protesters continued to chant outside.

Though the students inside the building were able to negotiate with the university's deputy provost and leave peacefully, police were called to campus. Backup was called and 100 officers in riot gear swept the campus, pepper-spraying and arresting protesters.

woman in red standing in front of riot police
Montreal police confront a protester in front of McGill University's James Administration Building Nov. 10, 2011. (Radio-Canada)

Zoe Pepper-Cunningham, one of the students who helped organize the day of action, said police were "hitting students indiscriminately" and she herself was hit and trampled. Looking back on her experience, she said it shook her up to see "state violence used against students with disproportionate force."

Now living in New York City, where students at pro-Palestinian encampments have been arrested en masse, Pepper-Cunningham said she's happy to see a shift in the way McGill and the Montreal police are responding to the encampment.

"It's great that students can maintain the protest, and that's a really positive development," she said. But it's not enough for the university to merely tolerate the protesters, she added.

"McGill has to respond when its students speak and when they demand that their money not be used to fund genocide and to fund war."

One month after the incident, former McGill law professor Daniel Jutras submitted a report of the internal investigation into the events of Nov. 10, 2011.

He included several recommendations for the university to better handle protests on campus, including "ensuring that the presence of squads of the police's intervention group on campus occurs only under conditions that conform to its values and concerns."

WATCH | Police clash with protesters on Nov. 10, 2011: 

Police response

13 years ago
Duration 1:15
Montreal police in riot gear respond after objects were allegedly thrown at officers following a student protest Thursday.

He concluded that McGill's handling of the student protest "left some wounds that must be healed."

The following February, students and one faculty member again occupied a floor of the administration building, this time for five days, after the university didn't honour referenda on spending student fees. According to former McGill professor Gregory Mikkelson, the university shut down the whole building, cutting access to internet, electricity, food and washrooms. No one was permitted to enter, including press.

Mikkelson said the university changed its tactics from calling for riot police: "Instead, first degrade, exhaust, and slowly brutalize them so that when the police do finally come, they go willingly."

In 2022, the City of Montreal had to pay more than $3 million to hundreds of protesters whose rights were violated by police during the Maple Spring protests as part of the settlement of eight class-action lawsuits.

This could explain why McGill has hesitated to call on riot police to dismantle the pro-Palestinian camp. The encampment has remained peaceful throughout the week and hasn't been blocking entrances to university buildings.

Both the university and police have stressed they want "a peaceful resolution."

'A completely different situation'

The pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been inspired by students in the U.S., but also by tactics seen in the 2011 Occupy Montreal protest where dozens of tents were erected downtown as part of a global movement against income inequality and corporate greed.

Protesters camped out peacefully for over a month, with the occupation ending when Montreal police told them to leave. The majority left voluntarily and 15 arrests were made, though none were charged. No new camp was set up, but activists continued to protest using new tactics as the timing coincided with the massive student uprising.

A person stands a mid a sea of tents and tarps.
Pro-Palestinian protesters have peacefully camped out in front of McGill University's downtown campus for one week, demanding the university cut all financial ties with Israel. (Graham Hughes/AFP/Getty Images)

Police said at the time that the camp was dismantled due to security concerns related to heating equipment.

Louis-Philippe Lampron, a law professor at Université Laval specializing in human rights, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that if "the protesters were trying to take possession of some of the buildings or blocking access to buildings of McGill," or we were "witnessing some hate speech" it would be "a completely different situation."

He added police could also intervene if the protests started to pose "a real and concrete risk for other people."

"But we're not seeing that right now," he said.

He says negotiations between McGill and the students evolved when the university offered to hold a public forum for students to discuss their demands. But those at the encampment have said that's not enough, and they won't leave until McGill fully divests from companies with business ties to Israel.


Erika Morris

CBC News journalist

Erika Morris is a journalist at CBC Montreal.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak