More than 100 students staged a sit-in outside the offices of McGill Principal, Heather Munroe-Blum, on Friday as part of an ongoing dispute between McGill’s administration and Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) over access to prayer space on campus.
Muslim students at McGill’s downtown campus said they have not had an on-campus prayer space available to them for nearly four months – after the administration said that the MSA’s prayer space, obtained through an agreement with the university in 2002, in the basement of the Peterson building on McTavish St. was needed for archaeology labs. The university has said that it is pressed for classroom and lab space.
The MSA said that they are entitled to space on university property; the McGill administration said that McGill is a secular institution and is, therefore, not required to provide Muslim students – or any religious group – with dedicated prayer space.
The MSA has been drawing attention to their views by praying outdoors on a lawn on the downtown campus. Friday afternoon prayers continue to be held in the ballroom of the Student Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) in the Shatner University Centre building. However, with what Environment Canada has forecasted to be a very cold winter approaching, MSA representatives said they are increasingly anxious to find a suitable indoor space on campus.
Friday’s sit-in began just after 2 p.m. when students gathered outside the University Centre Building after prayers in the ballroom. When organizers seemed satisfied with the number of people ready to participate, they led the group across campus to the James Administration Building. Participants climbed the stairs to Munroe-Blum’s fifth-floor offices, and, after requesting to speak with the principal, proceeded to fill the lobby and hallways by sitting on the floor.
MSA representative Umar Ahmed said the sit-in was necessary because “the administration refuses to negotiate with us.”
Ahmed said that he hoped Munroe-Blum would come out to speak with the students in the lobby, but that he was doubtful it would happen.
“McGill has a history of ignoring us,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to come out today – or they might just yell at us.”
Shortly after the students arrived in the office lobby, Munroe-Blum’s executive assistant appeared, telling students that the principal was in meetings all day, but that she would see what could be done.
Nafay Choudhury, another MSA representative furthered why the MSA had chosen to hold the sit-in.
“I think it’s about time the principal answered respectfully and courteously why there isn’t a prayer space on campus,” he said. “We want to know why she is allowing so many Muslim staff, faculty, and students the stress of not having a peaceful place to pray on campus. I’m hoping she realizes the importance of this issue.”
Asked whether the MSA had looked into alternative solutions for prayer space, Choudhury said that, “we’ve done our own surveys, there are definitely spaces available. We’ve shown them to the administration and they basically came back and pointed out that they’d take care of the university, that it was their job and we should just stay out of the picture. This shows their clear unwillingness to engage in discussion. If the university really took the issue seriously, we wouldn’t have waited four months.”
Chouhury said the McGill’s non-compliance with the MSA “goes beyond all our reasoning.”
Students were eventually addressed by McGill’s Interim Provost Anthony Masi. Masi restated the administration’s stance that, as a secular institution, McGill is not required to provide space to a religious group.
“McGill is a secular institution and we are going to behave as one,” Masi said.
Referring to the argument that McGill does provide a chapel in the Birks building on University St., Masi said that “a historic heritage building transferred to the university 100 years ago that happens to have a chapel does not constitute consecrated space on campus.”
Choudhury accused Masi and the administration of ignoring Muslim students and giving them, “empty promises.”
The discussion carried on for several minutes as the patience of both sides seemed to be wearing thin. After telling Choudhury that he was, “disappointed,” with the situation, Masi left the lobby.
Shortly after Masi’s departure, students began to leave, clearing the lobby about an hour after they had arrived there.
Questioned after students had left the lobby, McGill’s Associate Vice-Principal of Communications, Jennifer Robinson repeated the university’s assertion that they “do not provide space to any religious group for religious purposes.”
“The MSA has been insisting that we should make an exception in their case,” Robinson said. “What we have told the students is that they are perfectly free and invited to pray in any of the many quiet areas around campus – religion is, of course, an individual right. It’s not a collective right, it’s not a group right.”
According to Robinson, there are other religious groups, such as Christian and Jewish, that have managed to find religious space off-campus. Robinson said that McGill has offered to help the MSA secure off-campus prayer space.
“We have worked for this group for many, many months now to try to help them help themselves and they keep coming back and saying that they have no responsibility in this and that we have to provide them with everything.”
As for how she sees the dispute resolving itself, Robinson said “I can’t speculate on that. We have tried everything we can to help this group.”
Choudhury of the MSA said that the MSA is “definitely,” going to continue pressuring McGill.
“We’ll keep demanding our rights,” Choudhury said. “They are treating the Muslim students with disrespect.”