Written by Louise Vuillemin
The Students for Peace and Disarmament club, SPD for short, is composed of a handful of motivated students. They meet every week in a small room that you can tell they’ve made their own: various supplies lie around the room and they’ve covered the white board with outlines of their plans. The atmosphere between the members is relaxed and often playful: it is evident that they have spent countless hours working together, sometimes very late into the night, often in order to pore through thousands of pages of complicated documents before a certain deadline.
The club was founded recently, during the winter of 2019, by Lia Holla and Magritte Gordaneer, both U1 students at the time. Although their initial intention was to target nuclear activity and general disinformation about armament, it soon became clear that there were unanswered questions about McGill’s military research. This initiative was not new to the school: students have attempted to lift the fog that floated around the exact extent of McGill’s involvement in military research for decades.
At the height of the Cold War, in a context full of anti-war activism, an anti-war and pro-peace movement emerged at McGill. Led by Samuel Noumoff, a professor of political theory specializing in Marxism at McGill in the 1970s, a group of motivated students lobbied for weeks on end, asking the university to increase its transparency around the research done on the campus. Noumoff, who later authored a 250-page report on the subject of unethical research titled How to Make a Killing, occupied the university offices for several days with seven of his students before the administration finally passed an important new regulation: it required the applicants for research contracts or grants to describe, in at least a paragraph, how this research may have a harmful impact. This regulation was a major victory for the movement, especially in the geopolitical context at the time of its passing.
However, this victory did not last. In 2009, the regulation was removed from the Regulations from Conduct on Research by then-Vice Principal Denis Thérien. “No university in Canada has an explicit regulation referring to military funding in their policy,” said Thérien at the time, according to a 2009 McGill Daily article. Thérien’s decision was condemned by several organizations on campus, including the Post-Graduate Students’ Society and Demilitarize McGill, one of SPD’s major predecessors. The amendment to the policy also included “the addition of a clause that would allow sponsors to remain anonymous when directly funding research projects, if their requests for anonymity are filed ‘legitimately and in good faith.’” Needless to say, this was considered a huge step backwards in the fight for military research transparency at McGill.
It was around this time that conflicts between student groups and the university’s administration intensified, and new ones emerged. The aforementioned group Demilitarize McGill was prominent in the fight over military research and their website, although inactive since 2010, contains a lot of the research the students conducted on militarization activities on campus. The group even took the university to court, arguing that all information on this subject should be accessible to the student body, and filed several access to information requests (ATIs). In response, they were served thousands of documents, though most were redacted by the McGill administration. Although there were several students working hard on going through all of them, in addition to a SSMU-appointed student investigator, Noah Fischer, the movement died off around 2014 after most members graduated without anyone to ensure its continuation. For a few years, most of those documents were left unread, until SPD was founded and its members started reading through the thousands and thousands of pages that had been dumped on Demilitarize McGill years prior.
Through the careful reading of this documentation and research on campus, the members of SPD have been able to get a clearer idea of what is going inside the McGill laboratories used for military research, although much remains concealed thanks, in part, to the anonymity clause introduced around a decade ago. As of now, the club has been able to obtain new information on a couple of labs, one of which was primarily funded by the Canadian department of national defense, along with privatized military companies including Lockheed Martin, Bombardier, and CAE. These companies primarily advertise themselves as aerospace manufacturers, and have been heavily involved in several armed conflicts for decades through the sale of their technology and partnerships with the Pentagon and Canadian government, and their aircrafts and helicopters have been used in numerous conflicts around the world.
While all of this information uncovered by the hardworking members of SPD has been useful in increasing transparency between McGill and its students, their work is far from done. There are still several filed ATIs that the group is waiting to hear back from. The next step the group would like to take is to reach out to the McGill community to offer opportunities to learn more about what happens on their campus.
Demilitarize McGill website: https://demilitarizemcgill.wordpress.com
SPD’s Facebook page, look out for more events: https://www.facebook.com/mcgillpeaceclub