McGill français 30 years later

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For those who can remember them, the ’60s were politically explosive times, with much of the unrest revolving around university campuses, and McGill was not immune. One of the most fascinating of the mass protests of the decade was undoubtedly the McGill français demonstration of March 28, 1969, in which 10,000 radical nationalists, trade unionists, and students (including about 200 McGill militants) came together to demand that the University become a unilingual French, pro-worker institution.

In this more tranquil era, it ‘s hard to imagine the scene on Sherbrooke Street that cool spring evening 30 years ago. But in the late 1960s, nationalist fervor was in full bloom following the modernization and social upheaval of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Especially astonishing was the size of the boisterous crowd that had marched from Carré St-Louis, which the Montreal Star colourfully described as a vast “human tide” lapping at McGill’s gates. The protestors were met there by over 500 security guards and riot police, called in to attend to University administrators’ fear of a nightmare scenario – an attempt to enter and attack the campus.

But the demonstration turned out to be surprisingly peaceful, especially when compared to two violent events which had shaken Montreal only months before: the student occupation and destruction of the computer centre at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) and the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange by the revolutionary Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). This time around protesters seemed content to chant and blow whistles, or wave flags for their favourite causes (communism; anarchism; Quebec nationalism; the memory of Jean-Louis Papineau’s Patriote rebels of 1837). Others carried placards emblazoned with slogans like “McGill au peuple,” “A bas la Bastille!” and most simply “McGill français.”

This tumultuous event and its repercussions on the University were the subject of a recent day-long conference organized by McGill’s Programme d’études sur le Québec (PEQ) with the support of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). The involvement of these two groups was rather ironic. At the time the latter was “unequivocally opposed” to McGill français and its “assimilationist implications,” claiming that a focus on unilingualism meant that the more important goal of a “progressive transformation of Quebec” was being overlooked. The PEQ, meanwhile, is the successor to the Centre d’études canadiennes-françaises, which protesters wanted to see abolished because they believed it “scrutinized Quebecers like vulgar natives.” But in 1999, PEQ director Alain Gagnon ensures that McGill is a leading contributor of studies which “focus on the Quebec reality” and the SSMU has a francophone Commissaire, Louis-Philippe Messier, who ensures that French students’ concerns are heard on campus. Gagnon and Messier were two of the participants at the conference, which brought together student leaders from the time of McGill français, with commentators, students and administrators of today to reflect on the importance of the event for McGill and Quebec and to discuss how things have changed since 1969.

What was McGill’s relationship with Quebec society at the time? The University had pledged in its 1965 brief to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that it was “ready to play a most active and vigorous role in the new Quebec.” But according to McGill Sociology Professor and former student leader Morton Weinfeld (BA ’70), there was still “a sense in which McGill was somewhat isolated from Quebec society, much more so than is the case today.”

Accusations that McGill was an elitist, “unilingual bastion” of anglophones made the University a target for radical nationalist organizations of the day. Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) economist and McGill graduate Gilles Dostaler (MA ’72), for instance, was a member of the Comité Indépendance-Socialisme (CIS) at the time. This “secret but not illegal group of orthodox Marxists,” as Dostaler describes it, saw McGill as an institution upholding the exploitative, Anglo-Saxon capitalist class of Quebec. He helped draft the original plan for a protest to demand that McGill put itself at the service of Quebec society by undergoing francisation to dramatically increase the number of French-speaking students who could attend the University. (Eight percent of the student population was francophone in 1969.) “In the end,” notes Dostaler, “the demonstration … took on a much bigger scale than we had initially foreseen.”

Problems arising from the overhaul of Quebec’s educational system in the late 1960s rallied more popular support for the McGill français cause. The province’s new pre-university Colleges d’enseignement général et professionel (CEGEPs) were supposed to provide francophone Quebecers with an up-to-date curriculum and to make university-level studies more accessible. Instead they proved to be highly disorganized, leading students to stage massive rallies and go on strike in the fall of 1968. Furthermore, it appeared that the government had not foreseen the need for more university places to accommodate the first wave of new CEGEP graduates. Rumours circulated that 10,000 francophone students would have no university to attend in the fall of 1969. This crisis seemed particularly acute in Montreal because the city had only one French university at the time, the Université de Montréal.

The Quebec government responded in December 1968 by announcing that the new multicampus Université du Québec system would open its doors in September 1969 (including a Montreal campus) and sought to reassure students that there would be enough university places for them next fall (which indeed proved to be the case). But the realization of this project seemed a long way off early in 1969. And as CIS leader and former FLQ member François Bachand argued in a sensational January, 1969 McGill Daily interview – shortly before fleeing to Cuba to avoid arrest – there was simply no reason to build a new university when three good universities already existed in Montreal. The francisation of McGill was by far the best solution for both economic and symbolic reasons, as it would let anglophones know how the tables would be turned in an independent and socialist Quebec. Ultimately, according to Bachand, anglophones could either leave, collaborate, or “get shot.” While not going quite this far, the McGill français manifesto was still clearly inspired by Bachand’s proposal to francisise McGill. (see sidebar)

Another prominent McGill français agitator was Political Science lecturer Stanley Gray. Gray’s French may have been weak, but his radical credentials were impressive. He led students in many protests, wrote polemics for the leftist Daily, and was actually fired by the University in February 1969 for disrupting Senate and Board of Governors meetings. After networking with union leader Michel Chartrand, members of the CIS, and Raymond Lemieux of the unilinguist Ligue pour l’intégration scolaire (LIS) among others, Gray proceeded to promote the McGill français program on a province-wide tour, handing out copies of a special French version of the Daily which “explained” McGill’s role in the exploitation of Quebecers and the need for francisation.

Gray, now a workplace health and safety consultant for individual workers and unions, could not make it to the conference. Instead he sent a text to be read at the event. After elaborating the reasoning behind McGill français and asserting that he remained a convinced socialist, he conceded that “we saw the world in strictly polar opposites in those days.”

Claude Ryan, Editor-in-Chief of Le Devoir at the time of McGill français (and subsequently leader of the Quebec Liberal Party), noted that he had been highly critical of the overly simplistic and radical agenda of the protestors. In an editorial published the day before the demonstration, he denounced McGill français as a “vast operation of demagogic blackmail which aims more at clouding the issue and sowing confusion than shedding light on a complex subject.” Looking back, however, Ryan stated that the protest should be seen as one of a series of events which challenged traditional linguistic policies in Quebec and contributed to the adoption of French as the province’s official language.

Ryan was one of several participants invoking the insightful analyses of two of the more progressive McGill administrators at the time. Laurier Lapierre was director of the French-Canadian Studies program and Michael Oliver was Vice-Principal (Academic). Oliver launched the French-Canadian Studies program in 1963 before being called away to serve on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Many conservative McGill administrators had asserted that the University was “highly involved” in Quebec society and that there was no underlying problem to deal with once the McGill français protesters had been fended off. But Lapierre observed that there was a dramatic difference between simply being in Quebec and being of Quebec. While keeping its distinctive character and mission, Lapierre felt that McGill should strive to identify more intimately and actively with Quebec’s people and its concerns. At the conference Ryan said that he thought that “significant progress has been made in this direction over the course of the last few decades” at McGill and that the University’s excellence in teaching and research were “a point of pride for Quebec.” But he also noted that the University remains “rightly or wrongly, a distant and unfamiliar institution” in the eyes of many francophones even today. He urged McGill administrators and all those concerned about the University’s flourishing to keep Lapierre’s thoughts “uppermost in their minds.”

On the other hand, McGill Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger and Director of Governmental Relations Ginette Lamontagne insist that the University does belong to Quebec today. They noted McGill’s participation in numerous joint programs and collaborative research projects with francophone universities. This, Bélanger said, is a dramatic change he has witnessed since arriving here as a junior professor in 1967; he also sees far more anglophones going out of their way to learn and speak French today. And with the arrival of new Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet from Université de Montréal, McGill will have a second francophone upper-level administrator on a bilingual executive team that enjoys good relations with the Ministry of Education in Quebec City and with other Quebec universities.

Lamontagne also emphasized that McGill is no longer the anglo enclave it might once have been: since the 1980s, approximately 20% of McGill students have been francophones and an increasing percentage (over 14% in 1998-99) are international students. While she emphasized in a subsequent interview that “it’s clear that McGill is well-rooted in Quebec society,” Lamontagne also believes that the University must be global in outlook if it is to continue to provide a unique product to Quebecers and fulfil its “universal mission” in an era of knowledge-based economies. “The international students McGill brings in provide Quebec with a network of influence which will contribute to its growth in the 21st Century,” she stated.

McGill Chancellor and conference moderator Gretta Chambers has her own very good reasons to believe that McGill is more in tune with Quebec society. She recently bumped into an alumnus of the McGill français protest in front of the Roddick Gates. The woman proceeded to tell Chambers that her daughter was applying to McGill. “Although we didn’t end up catching her in the end,” deadpanned the Chancellor, “I’m pleased to say that [Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister] Louise Harel and I remain good friends.”

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