McGill often touts its research credentials as among Canada’s best: According to the latest QS rankings, it boasts the 43rd highest research output and 36th best faculty globally. It is no wonder that students flock to Montreal in hopes of rising up through the ranks of distinguished academics. After all, McGill was where DNA was identified as the component of genetics, and home to the inventor of the gas mask and the man who wrote Canada's national anthem, among the many others who succeeded in making significant contributions to their field of research. But although McGill’s researchers have helped to improve our world, they have also invested in and researched technologies that have contributed to war and surveillance, creating devastating consequences for ordinary citizens across the globe.
McGill’s Computational Fluid Dynamics Lab, for example, has been involved with the research of de-icing strategies and simulations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are primarily used as drones in military airstrikes and reconnaissance. Documents obtained through an access to information request submitted by campus group Demilitarize McGill detail contracts between McGill professors and the Canadian Department of National Defence. There are also references to aerospace defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin and Quebec-based transportation company Bombardier for researchers involved in the de-icing strategies project.
McGill’s involvement does not stop there: In 2006, McGill’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Lockheed Martin and Defence Research and Development Canada to research missile guidance systems.
But as long as McGill researchers have been involved in military and arms research, student activists have fought back against the administration’s secrecy. In 1984, at the height of the Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, The McGill Daily published its disarmament issue, titled “Un-people,” spotlighting Canada’s growing role in military research. Articles describe early activist groups, such as McGill Employees for Nuclear Disarmament (MEND) and the McGill Study Group for Peace and Disarmament, challenging the administration on issues such as allowing military-funded research to proceed.
The Study Group was formed in 1981 with a mandate to generate awareness and involvement of military-funded research at McGill by publishing information pertaining to the field. Through facilitating guest lectures, dispensing information, and campaigning for the creation of courses specifically related to disarmament, the Study Group advocated for education surrounding military research.
MEND, on the other hand, was founded in response to the circulation of a petition against disarmament at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, resulting in the creation of a nation-wide organization called ‘Academics for Nuclear Disarmament.’ The McGill branch, formed in October 1982, was then renamed to accommodate both academic and non-academic staff members. Composed of around 60 workers, MEND worked with student organizations to gather and disseminate information regarding disarmament. It took an openly political mandate, aiming to better regulate potentially harmful military research.
James Tully, a professor of political science and philosophy at McGill from 1977–1996, supported MEND. His lectures about disarmament caught the attention of the Study Group, to which he was later invited to join. He, along with fellow professor Debbie Higgins, edited the Study Group’s publication.
“I got involved with the Study Group and its newsletter because they were talking about the issues of war, nuclear disarmament, and peace, and sponsoring talks and seminars,” Tully wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune “I was lecturing on these issues at the time, [and] as a citizen, I was involved in the broader peace movement at that time.”
Students have also been involved with demilitarization. Founded in 2012, Demilitarize McGill alienated many with its hardline stance against war commemoration ceremonies and its radical protest strategies. All this, however, allowed its executives to significantly impact the fight against military research at McGill during its tumultuous time as an active campus organization. The group’s mandate encompassed campaigning for the elimination of harmful military research at McGill and set higher standards for professors who engage in research that has the potential to hurt others.
As part of their effort to increase transparency surrounding military-funded research, in 2012 Demilitarize McGill submitted 172 access to information requests demanding almost 9,000 email correspondences. McGill’s administration made numerous attempts to block these requests, going insofar as submitting a petition to the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec to ignore all requests pertaining to military research from McGill students or student newspapers. This was ultimately overturned. Despite McGill’s willingness to spend great sums of money in its endeavour not to release this information, Demilitarize McGill was finally given access to the documents in 2016.
One issue that poses a substantial challenge to groups advocating against military research at McGill constitutes defining the field. Almost all military research has civilian uses and vice versa, creating a target that is difficult to identify and even harder to campaign against. Even the most innocuous of inventions, such as biofuels, which are environmentally friendly but can also be used to refuel fighter jets, can have devastating implications when in the wrong hands. In addition, much of the funds allocated to research projects by the Canada’s Department of Defense have gone towards general research rather than specific projects designed to be used in conflict. The lack of official government guidelines makes the issue even more complex: With no definition, regulation becomes close to impossible.
Demilitarize McGill dissipated in 2016 after many of its founding members graduated.Lia Holla, U1 Arts and Science, and Magritte Gordaneer, U1 Arts, who had both been involved with disarmament and anti-imperialism advocacy in the past, attempted to fill the void with a new club, called Students for Peace and Disarmament (SPD). When it came into existence in the winter of 2018, members of the club aimed to spread awareness of the activities taking place in McGill’s labs through educational workshops and to continue to investigate McGill’s role in military research.
“Our two main long-term goals are to promote shutting down harmful military research at McGill, and our second [...] goal is to create a community to discuss disarmament and peace-building [at McGill],” Maya Garfinkel, U2 Arts and SPD’s research coordinator said. “A lot of the times those sorts of conversations are pushed aside or put on the back burner and invalidated, and we feel like being able to create a community where those conversations are real and [lead to action] is really important.”
One of SPD’s main short-term goals has been to consolidate pre-existing research into digestible and accessible bites. The documents released in response to Demilitarize McGill’s access to information requests are hundreds of pages long, and range from detailed descriptions of Demilitarize McGill’s activism on campus to emails between McGill professors and representatives of Canada’s Department of Defense.
Most recently, SPD submitted an access to information request for all recent documents associated with the work of Wagdi Habashi, a mechanical engineering professor who runs a research group at the Computational Fluid Dynamics Lab. While such access to information requests are only supposed to take one month, given McGill’s track record as well as the challenges posed by COVID-19, it is likely that SPD will be waiting for a while.
While SPD is primarily focused on obtaining and spreading information, members remain unsure of what will come next. Given their long-term goal of eradicating military-funded research altogether, it would make sense that targeting McGill’s research regulations would be a priority. In 2009, McGill’s Senate made changes to its Regulations on Conduct of Research policy. In 1971, seven students worked with political science professor Samuel Noumoff to write a report, titled “How to make a killing,” that detailed McGill’s involvement in military research. The report prompted the creation of a specific regulation that forced professors who are engaged in military-funded research to indicate whether their findings will have direct, harmful consequences, but there are currently no references to military-related research in the policy. Former Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Denis Thérien justified removal of the policy by stating that no other universities have similar reporting clauses specifically for military research. While this is true, many wondered why McGill, which considers itself a global leader in many respects, would reverse their novel position to conform with other universities.
“I think the people who are making decisions [at McGill] know that we have an active [portion of the] student body [that is] campaigning against military research at McGill, so I think in my opinion, they don’t want us to know what’s going on,” Anika Hundal, U2 Arts and secretary for SPD said. “So [the removal] of the policy was in the interest of [maintaining] a lack of transparency.”
Vice Principal (Research and Innovation) Martha Crago emphasized that all research undertaken at McGill must be made public, meaning that external organizations that want to keep their research secret cannot go through McGill.
“In case of any specific connections to [the] military, our office requires the researcher to prepare a summary of the research project overall and any possible harmful applications that could come from this, as well as anticipated benefits,” Crago wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “We require researchers to justify their projects in terms of the potential benefit that can be shared with society. It is through this lens that we review projects.”
There are many avenues for future advocacy. As far back as 1988, MEND drafted a screening process for weapons research, but this stopped short of attempting to ban it outright. Whether SPD will pursue a similar course of action has yet to be seen, and will likely depend on the contents of the access to information request.
Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President University Affairs Brooklyn Frizzle has also committed to renewing interest in the topic, though it is unlikely that an independent researcher who is dedicated solely to research on militarism will be hired.
“I think it's an incredibly important issue to pursue and I would hate to see it fade out of SSMU's collective memory,” Fizzle said.
In an email to The McGill Tribune, Fizzle wrote that they plan to look at updating and reimplementing the Policy on a Campus Free from Harmful Military Research while meeting with McGill’s administration to discuss the issue, which has largely stayed off-the-radar since the dissolution of Demilitarize McGill. The policy, which was ratified in 2015, enabled SSMU to lobby the administration for increased transparency, though it expired in January 2020.
SSMU Campaigns Coordinator Noah Fisher emphasized that the structural nature of the issue means that professors are not entirely to blame for the circumstances which attract them to military research.
“There’s a more complicated question about how research happens,” Fisher said in an interview with the Tribune. “And the answer isn’t that the university is sketchy, but rather that the university is underfunded, and a lot of money is in the military industrial complex. And so it’s not totally up to professor choice, but rather about how research gets funded.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly cited Lia Holla as the only founder of SPD. In fact, it was both Holla and Magritte Gordaneer who created the group. The Tribune regrets this error.