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Why are McGill Students on Hunger Strike?

By Sanad Hamdouna

Cover Artist & Co-E.i.C.

     Bogdan and Chadi are only two among several McGill students currently on hunger strike to protest their university’s complicity in what experts have called a genocide in The Gaza Strip.

     On February 13th, the group they’re part of—aptly named “McGill Hunger Strike”— announced over Instagram their intention to go on an indefinite hunger strike. They will not eat until McGill divests from its approximately 20 Million dollar investments in arms manufacturing companies and other companies benefiting from Israel’s murderous campaign against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

     According to McGill’s publicly available list of investments, as of December 31st 2023, McGill invests heavily into known arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, who provide Israel with weapons like the Hellfire 9x missile, designed to shred people with an explosion of sharp blades, and Thales SA, who also manufacture weapons and collaborate with Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems to develop new killing technologies. In late 2023, The McGill Daily calculated that McGill invested around 7 Million dollars into various arms manufacturing and military service companies, most with ties to the Israeli military. 

     The remaining $13 Million in investments mentioned by McGill Hunger Strike is divided between a small number of other companies providing more subtle support to the Israeli military or profiting  from the oppression of Palestinians and land theft. These companies include giants such as: Chevron Corp, the second largest polluter in the world and Israel’s main fossil fuel extractor; L’Oreal, a makeup company operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement in the illegally occupied Palestinian West Bank; and RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) which owns at least 58 Billion USD of shares in Palantir, a mass surveillance system of Orwellian proportion weaponized against Palestinians, among others. Additionally, RBC is the main financial force behind the ongoing theft of indigenous land in Canada — namely the lands and waters of the Wet'suwet'en Nation — in the interest of oil barons. 

     As of March 16th, at least two students have been on an indefinite hunger strike since February 19th, with others joining subsequently.

     In an interview with The Plant during a protest on March 9th — the 20th day of his hunger strike — Bogdan describes their motivations for choosing hunger striking as a method of protest: “We’re doing this so that we get results as fast as possible. We're doing this because the situation in Palestine is so urgent and unprecedented that it requires unprecedented actions.”

     The Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, has characterized Israel’s actions as causing “one of the worst humanitarian crises faced by any civilian population this century”. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based rights group, has labeled it the deadliest situation for journalists they’d ever seen, with 37 journalists killed in the first month and at least 95 killed by March 15th. In addition, as of March 14th, Euromed Monitor reports a death toll of at least 40 042 Palestinians killed in Gaza since October 7th. Those killed include 14 861 children, the most vulnerable part of the population, with many more in a state of acute malnutrition and dehydration or dead due to Israeli-induced starvation and disease. 

Photo Via @mcgillhungerstrike 

The McGill hunger strikers are far from first to describe this sense of urgency. On March 8th 2024, Jason Lee, a director for the humanitarian organization Save the Children, said: “Children in Gaza cannot wait to eat. They are already dying from malnutrition and saving their lives is a matter of hours or days — not weeks.”

     These apocalyptic conditions and the constant stream of live war crimes on our screens have driven many to action in the last few months, but the hunger strike was not McGill students’ first choice. In fact, they have been fighting against their university’s complicity in genocide, apartheid, and other human rights abuses for much longer. 

     In early 2021, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) adopted the “Divest for Human Rights Policy”, officially calling on McGill to divest from and cut ties with a series of companies involved in human rightsviolations, including some still benefiting from Israeli apartheid and the ongoing genocide against Palestinians. 

     In the Winter 2022 SSMU referendum, McGill students voted 71% in favour of adopting the Palestine Solidarity Policy, signaling a strong desire to end the university’s complicity in Israeli crimes. 

In the SSMU’s Fall 2023 referendum, students voted 78.7% in favour of adopting the Policy Against Genocide in Palestine. This policy explicitly listed demands for the McGill administration to “publicly condemn the genocidal bombing campaigns and siege against the people of Gaza”; “immediately cut ties with any corporations, institutions or individuals complicit in genocide, settler-colonialism, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing against Palestinians”; and “immediately divest from all corporations and institutions complicit in genocide, settler-colonialism, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing against Palestinians”, among others.

Despite these mandates, McGill has chosen to ignore their students’ demands. This indifference risks the lives of hunger-striking students and tarnishes the university’s reputation; those students may die, and McGill would be one of few universities, if not the only one, to kill its own students for Israel’s sake. 

In an attempt to avoid this disastrous outcome, the McGill administration agreed — on February 28th — to a meeting with the hunger striking students and allied groups on March 11th. It only took a few hours for them to send an email going back on their word and instead proposed a meeting on March 1st, a date that McGill Hunger Strike had already informed them was too early, and imposed a strict limit on the amount of people that could attend. This caused a collapse in the negotiations and as of March 16th, no progress has been made.

When asked how the rest of the student body in Montreal could support McGill students, Bogdan urged: 

“Please spread the word about what’s going on, please report on it, please tell your friends to follow us. We have an open letter on our Instagram, @McGillHungerStrike, calling on McGill alumni, faculty, and staff. It’s a letter that alumni themselves penned up independently, in support of what we’re doing and asking McGill to listen to us and to have a meeting with all the students, and that’s already received over 800 signatures. Another thing you can do is directly emailing the administration yourselves, members of the administration, such as Deep Saini, our president, asking them to listen to the hunger strikers to listen to all of their students and faculty who’ve already democratically been calling for divestment and boycott. The third thing you can do is if you want to join us and you’re from Montreal, you’re very welcome to go on hunger strike with us.”

Chadi, who had been standing on the sidelines for most of the interview, but who’s also indefinitely hunger striking, had a message specifically for CÉGEP students: 

“A lot of people in CÉGEP are going to go to university, right? So I would encourage CÉGEP students who were considering McGill to — you know — reflect on it, think, and even speak publicly about it and to say: ‘hey maybe we should not be going to universities that invest 20 mil into apartheid and genocide’ […] McGill has shown that what we’re doing and our legitimate acts of protest, and our right to protest, is being ignored even in situations where there is a dire consequence for our health because they do not want to listen to their students. So I would encourage CÉGEP students to reconsider exactly what they’re doing when they’re applying and to talk about it and call it out. Because we cannot just keep entering academic institutions that not only do not care about us, [but] that do not care about people in general. And I think that’s very important, there’s a lack of security for Palestinian students, for pro-Palestinian students, and in general it’s very tough. And I would like for the people in CÉGEP to really look carefully at where they’re going because, a lot of times, we don’t. And academic prestige will never be worth our humanity.”


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