Six months later, we are still demanding accountability for the McGill blacklist

Six months ago, on May 31 2021, McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR McGill) published an article about the existence of a secret blacklist containing the names of Palestinian and pro-Palestine students at McGill. We also publicized the fact that several officials in the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU), including three members of the SSMU Board of Directors (BoD), had contributed to, or at least known about this blacklist: Director and Arts Representative Chip Smith, Director and Arts Representative Alex Karasick, SSMU Speaker and Chair of the Board of Directors Lauren Hill, Arts Representative Libby Williamson, and former Director and Science Representative Jordyn Wright.

The surveillance and documentation of students suspected of holding pro-Palestine sympathies is part and parcel of the intimidation tactics used to dissuade, threaten and discourage Palestinian students on campus and their supporters . According to the anonymous testimonies we received, the list has also been used in the past for covert mobilization against candidates running for various student-run governance positions, who were branded “anti-Israel” by the users of the list.

Our article emerged from the testimonies of several sources, including a student that we refer to as Anonymous. This person was viciously doxxed and sexually harassed online, immediately after they tried to alert the McGill administration and the SSMU in May. Neither the McGill administration, nor the SSMU executive committee under President Jemark Earle were willing to deal with the issue, forcing Anonymous to appeal to SPHR for help. In our attempts to protect Anonymous’ identity from further racist targeting, we therefore had to carefully word our statements.

What happened after

A few days after the Medium article was published, we received a series of audio recordings from yet another source close to the SSMU officials mentioned in our article. These audio recordings revealed that one of the two Directors was indeed aware of the blacklist before our expose article.The recorded Director also appeared to incriminate other SSMU officials named in our first article.

Less than thirty minutes after the SPHR article was published on Facebook, one of the SSMU Directors we had named, Chip Smith, resigned with immediate effect. Meanwhile, Director Alex Karasick and Board Chairperson Lauren Hill tried to use their positions of power on the Board of Directors (BoD) to crack down on SPHR, by issuing a “cease and desist” letter, in order to silence us. These efforts were fortunately unsuccessful. Nevertheless, since Chip Smith’s resignation, Alex Karasick has continued to wield his full powers as a Director, while former SSMU Speaker Lauren Hill has recently been hired as Secretary General of SSMU University Affairs.

SSMU’s broken promise

In our previous article, we outlined our demands that the SSMU, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS), and the McGill administration investigate this incredibly disturbing blacklist, as well as the broader issue of doxxing, intimidation and harassment of Palestinian and pro-Palestine students at McGill. As expected, the McGill administration refused to publicly address the blacklist, or to address the decades-old issue of doxxing and harassment of over 20 McGill students and 6 professors on Canary Mission. Many of these “profiles” on Canary Mission were updated this August, most likely with the input of on-campus Zionists.

Blacklists like Canary Mission are not only deployed to intimidate students on North American campuses, but are also used by Israeli occupation forces to interrogate, arrest and deport politically vocal Palestinians when they attempt to visit their relatives and their homes in occupied Palestine. The American FBI also uses such blacklists to interrogate and intimidate young Palestinian American activists, by using the lists as evidence of “links to terrorism.”

This is the reason why SPHR members have long been very careful about not divulging their identities to people or organizations like SSMU that they cannot trust. As a precaution, SPHR members typically use modified names or pseudonyms in interviews, statements or forms, because the potential risks of not doing so can be devastating.

One should also not forget that the McGill blacklist, and others like it, are built on racist, orientalist and Islamophobic tropes. These tropes portray Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims as inherently “violent”, “backward” people, who must be surveilled, imprisoned or otherwise “controlled”. These are the exact tropes which one Director used when they claimed, in a private conversation with one of our witnesses, that the blacklist existed to “protect” Zionist students from Palestinian and pro-Palestine students.

The sham “investigation”

Under pressure to act, the incoming SSMU executive committee announced an investigation on June 30, in order to “scrutinize the extent to which any student may have known about the list, or used the list for specific purposes.” Furthermore, the SSMU executives stated the following:

“The grave allegations made by a SSMU Club, namely McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) should not be taken lightly. The potential existence of this list poses a grave threat to the physical and mental well-being of many of our fellow McGill community members. Furthermore, we recognize that many McGill students and faculty have been doxxed in the past few years on public websites like Canary Mission, in an effort to “punish” them for pro-Palestine activism. As SSMU executives, we believe it is the duty of our student union to stand against such abhorrent profiling, repression, surveillance and harassment of our fellow students.”

These words gave us some hope that the SSMU was indeed serious about confronting this issue, and about holding its members accountable, especially those in positions of power.

Five months on, it has become clear that this SSMU investigation is marred by incompetence, or something more sinister. When an SPHR member first met with the SSMU-appointed investigator on Zoom in July, the investigator immediately tried to force the member to reveal their name and show their face. The SPHR member refused to do so, for obvious reasons. Despite this disturbing behaviour, SPHR provided the investigator with all of our evidence, including the audio recordings.

When Anonymous met with the investigator, the investigator expressed disbelief that the blacklist existed, based on the fact that all the Directors she had interviewed denied its existence. Instead of taking these denials with a grain of salt, the investigator appeared to wholeheartedly believe and sympathize with the SSMU officials accused of wrongdoing. She did not harbour any similar sympathies for the student who had just been sexually harassed and doxxed, or with the hundreds of pro-Palestine students who have been impacted by the latest instance of racist surveillance at McGill.

To make matters worse, the investigator has repeatedly violated the official mandate of the investigation: to investigate “the alleged existence of a blacklist of Palestinian and pro-Palestine students at McGill,” as well as “the extent to which any student may have known about the list, or used the list for specific purposes.” Instead, the investigator has repeatedly claimed that her job is not to uncover the truth about the blacklist, but to investigate whether SPHR had “sufficient evidence” to publish our article. In other words, the investigator is operating on the assumption that SPHR should be treated as the “suspect”, due to the fact that we publicly denounced SSMU officials for their involvement in the surveillance and profiling of McGill students.

In the past few weeks, the investigator intensified her efforts to track down the identities of individual SPHR members. Having obtained the name of an SPHR member, she emailed us demanding to meet this member. She refused to disclose why she wanted to meet with them, or to explain how she obtained that person’s name. Since that name had been submitted in SPHR’s Student Group Information Form in September, it appears that a SSMU executive handed over this sensitive information to the investigator, without seeking any consent from SPHR.

In short, the SSMU has been paying this investigator for over five months, only for her to repeatedly violate her mandate, casually dismiss evidence against the actual suspects in the case, and spend her time tracking down the identities of SPHR members, with the apparent help of hostile SSMU executives, directors or staff. Meanwhile, not a single SSMU official has been suspended over their potential involvement in the list, despite the ongoing investigation.

SPHR has raised these concerns with the SSMU executives multiple times, to no avail. This suggests that the entire investigation has served no other purpose than to downplay the complicity of SSMU officials in the blacklist, while covertly attempting to track down and punish SPHR members for speaking out. This should come as no surprise, since all the SSMU officials we named are well connected in the SSMU, the AUS, or the SUS. Clearly, other members of the SSMU bureaucracy would rather shield their powerful colleagues from accountability than protect students from racist doxxing, surveillance, intimidation, and sexual harassment.

The silence of the student press

More surprising, and disheartening, has been the total silence of the entire student press over the past six months. To this day, not a single McGill student newspaper has published any article about the blacklist or about the SSMU investigation. We see two possible explanations for this self-censorship:

1) The fact that Palestinian and pro-Palestine students are being targeted with sexual harassment and doxxing, with the complicity of powerful figures in the SSMU, is not considered newsworthy by any campus newspaper. If this is the case, one wonders: how much more vile does the racist surveillance and harassment of pro-Palestine students need to become, in order to merit the attention of our campus’ journalists?

2) Campus newspapers are simply afraid to publish anything related to this issue, due to the very real fear of getting sued by the SSMU officials in question. Indeed, one of the McGill newspapers we spoke to was on the verge of publishing an article about the SSMU investigation. At the last moment, they backed out and refused to follow through, based on fears of legal retribution. One should also bear in mind that many student newspapers receive funding or other institutional support from the SSMU. It would not be surprising if this reduced their willingness to publicly criticize our student union’s most powerful and influential members.

Regardless of the reason, the campus media’s silence made us realize that we could not rely on student newspapers to report on this issue, just as we could not expect justice from a SSMU investigation marred by incompetence, dishonesty, and the dictatorial grip of the SSMU Board of Directors.

The only thing we can count on is our own unapologetic voice. Just as we raise this voice to denounce the complicity of this University in the violent colonization of Palestine, we will continue to raise our voice against racist blacklisting, censorship, surveillance, intimidation and harassment of Palestinian and pro-Palestine students on this campus, until justice is finally served.

Our demands

  1. That the SSMU publicly apologize for the outrageous conduct of its investigation thus far, and commit to conducting a proper investigation;
  2. That Director Alex Karasick and University Affairs Secretary-General Lauren Hill be suspended from their respective positions until the conclusion of a proper SSMU investigation into the blacklist;
  3. That the McGill administration publicly acknowledge the rampant, decades-old climate of anti-Palestinian surveillance and intimidation at McGill, including the doxxing of over 20 McGill students and 6 faculty members on Canary Mission;
  4. That the McGill administration and the SSMU each publish a Master Plan for ending racist surveillance and doxxing of Palestinian and pro-Palestine students, at McGill University and within the SSMU.

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We demand that McGill ceases its complicity in the ongoing violation of Palestinian human rights

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McGill SPHR

McGill SPHR

We demand that McGill ceases its complicity in the ongoing violation of Palestinian human rights

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